I’ve spent a long time working in a range of organisations, both as an employee and as a consultant. I’ve begun to see patterns of organisational dysfunction that I think lead to cultural breakdowns and begin to create toxic workplaces. To some extent, these can apply to projects as well. For the sake of this post, I’m generally referring to anti-patterns in organisations.
These are small, solvable challenges (smells).
You should watch to see that they don’t become issues. If they transform into issues (like the ones further down), then they will need urgent fixes, otherwise they will become part of the permanent culture of the organisation.
You should consider addressing them, but there are plenty of organisations that survive without fixing them. A lot of startups live with these issues - to some extent, they are part of being a startup (eg. having concerns over funding runway, unclear role definitions, etc).
- There is a lack of clarity around who does what.
- You have no idea what your coworkers are doing currently.
- There are organisational silos, either across teams or departments. Note: I personally consider this an issue, but depending on the scale and size of your organisation, it might be valid to consider it only a challenge.
- Information about significant changes to the organisation takes days to reach you.
- Information about significant changes to your work or role takes days to reach you.
- There is uncertainty around next 6 years of funding/growth (particularly for large enterprises).
- There is uncertainty around next 6 months of funding/growth for the first time ever (particularly for long running, established organisations).
- People are hired on their ability to administer, not their ability to add value. This is not the same as hiring managers or leaders to help scale a team (they add value by improving an existing team), but hiring a process administrator (someone who blindly creates and implements policies, and punitively punishes people based on those policies).
- There is rapid growth in the number and breadth of organisational policies.
- You heartily recommend the organisation as somewhere to work and conclude with a ‘But…’ statement.
- As a product person (ie. someone involved with building the product the company relies on), you can’t get access to the source or core designs of the product. Primarily a problem for IT organisations (you are unable to get access to source control), but can apply equally to engineering organisations (you can’t get access to the designs of the product you’re working on) or any product-based organisation.
- You have not received feedback for over a fortnight. You don’t have an idea how to actionably improve the work you did in the last fortnight. Could be solved with retrospectives or one-on-one feedback, but it will vary from person to person.
- Your team has not caught up to discuss how things are going (whether in a retrospective / review meeting or some other format) for a substantial period of time.
- You would not classify the organisation as a results orientated work environment (ROWE).
These patterns are systemic. They’ve become cultural norms, to the point where not participating in these anti-patterns could lead to a failure to succeed as an individual (whether through a herd mentality protecting the status quo, or individuals furthering themselves at the cost of others).
If a third-party was to hear about these behaviours, they’d view them poorly. Describing these behaviours could be enough to scare off a potential recruit, or make someone leave the organisation very quickly after being hired.
- The main source of information for the organisation is water cooler gossip or discussions outside the office.
- Managers/leaders talk about non-public decisions like they were public knowledge, relying on the grapevine to spread information. This means that leadership is relying on gossip as their main communication channel, and worse that they recognise that this is the most effective channel.
- Roles are forced onto people (eg. You must do this job, even if you hate it).
- People refer to other team members by their roles (eg. QA could do this, that’s the QA’s job), instead of their name. Add an extra point if this is done to their face.
- Promotions are given to inappropriate candidates (eg. senior roles given to junior candidates).
- Promotions are forced onto people (eg. You’ve been here 10 years, it’s time to be a manager).
- People are scared to have an open conversation in case the conversation is held against them later.
- There are unclear expectations, whether in regards to performance, roles, projects, success/failure criteria, or other metrics.
- There is no clear growth model for the organisation.
- There is uncertainty around the next 6 months of funding or growth. If this occurs in a cyclical fashion (eg. every 2-3 years, there is a panic over the next 6 month’s income), then it’s now an issue.
- There is a huge disparity in pay scales between employees of similar experience, skills, performance and tenure.
- The organisation pays under market rates, or claims that the office environment makes up for that. Startups are notorious for this. Free office fruit is not valid compensation.
- Policies are used to hide behind decisions. Policies are not easily available, are implemented without explanation, or use unclear language.
- You are hesitant to recommend anyone else to work there. You only recommend because there is a referral bonus to take advantage of.
- You view your job as a paycheck.
- The organisation advises it’s clients differently than how it treats it’s own employees.
- Similarly, the organisation no longer eats it’s own dog food: the car company who doesn’t use their own cars, the software company who doesn’t use their own software, etc. They don’t believe in the advice they give or the products they sell.
- Workers who are out-of-sight are out-of-mind. This is especially a problem with large global companies and consulting organisations with onsite work, where the site/regional office or project teams out at a remote client site are forgotten. The out-of-sight workers don’t have as much influence over their organisation (or if they do, they do so at the detriment of the project they’re currently on: lots of time on email, phones, ignoring work, etc), and are glossed over in promotions/discussions/etc, because they are not able to be present to argue their case.
- As a product person, you are expressly denied access to source control. Statements along the lines of “that’s not your role”, “concentrate on your current project”, “only managers and above can get access to that” often are provided.
- Information about significant changes to the organisation takes weeks/months to reach you.
- Information about significant changes to your work/role takes weeks to reach you.
- You have not received feedback for over 2 months. The project or organisation doesn’t hold retrospectives and doesn’t provide one-on-one feedback.
- You haven’t met with the person responsible for your performance/progression in the organisation in over 2 months.
- Showiness has a higher impact on performance reviews. This is an indicator that performance is not results-orientated. Individuals will tend towards ostentatious / unbeneficial activities just for the sake of recognition (eg ignoring their assigned work for the sake of something else).
These patterns are killers. They will destroy you or the organisation, whichever breaks first (typically, it is the individual). It is incredibly unlikely that you will able to solve any of these, let alone all of them, and certainly not without extensive sacrifice from the individuals involved. My recommendation here is to leave and pursue another organisation.
- Managers/leaders casually throw around phrases like “I’ll fire the first person who …” or “How can I make you redundant?”
- There is active harrassment of any kind - sexual, physical, bullying, etc.
- There is a culture of fear.
- Managers/leaders lie about decisions, regardless of consequence.
- There is uncertainty around the next 6 weeks of funding/growth. Signals include an inability to pay salaries, asking people to take voluntary redundancies, asking people to take unpaid leave.
- Policies are applied disproportionally, with huge leeway for some employees and punishing others. A culture of favouritism encourages flaunting rules and/or policies.
- Policies are used as weapons to threaten employees.
- You would not recommend anyone work there under any circumstances.
- You actively counsel others to avoid the organisation.
- Information about significant changes to the organisation takes months to reach you, or may never reach you.
- Similarly, you are more likely to hear about the organisation from outside sources (external gossip, newspapers, social media, etc).
- You hear more from your organisational leader (eg. CEO, Managing Director, founder) from outside sources (eg. in a magazine article or gossip column) than via internal methods.
- Information about significant changes to the organisation takes months to reach you.
- Information about significant changes to your work/role takes months to reach you.
- You have not received any performance feedback for over 6 months.
- The project or organisation actively discourages retrospectives/review meetings and doesn’t allow for one-on-one feedback.
- You haven’t met with the person responsible for your performance/progression in the organisation in over 6 months.
Where does this leave you?
How does your organisation stack up?
How many of these points sound familiar to you? List down the ones that you see around you. Consider your position, influence and capability to fix these points.
I should say that this isn’t always a one-way street, from challenge to issue to unsolvable problem. I have seen organisations reverse the flow and unwind a horrible culture, transforming it into a truly amazing place to work. However, when such a change occurred, those organisations made a concerted effort from the top of the organisation down to highlight the issue and fix it. Those organisations took steps like:
- a public acceptance that they had made a mistake that led to the cultural problems
- blaming no-one
- learning from their mistakes
- asking the employees how to fix those things
- actually implementing the fixes
But honestly, it’s rare. If you can effect change to remove some of these things, and you have the position, influence, capability and emotional strength to fix them, do it! It’s a challenging and rewarding exercise. Warning: it’s incredibly tiring and taxing. This will suck a lot of energy from you for an extended period of time.
But if things don’t change or you don’t get the support to start those changes, leave. Don’t spend more energy on a lost cause.
The very best thing to do is build in an incredible culture from the start of your business or team, and constantly monitor it and improve it. Run this checklist against your company on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis (it could be informally or formally, it’s up to you) and reap the rewards of a strong(er) culture.