8 Symptoms of an Unhealthy Culture

Mark Arnold
8 Symptoms of an Unhealthy Culture

Remember that feeling as a kid when your parents tried to take your temperature?

No, not that way.

I'm talking about when you were a little bit older, and they told you they needed to take your temperature. You knew that meant they were going to jab slide that thermometer in your mouth and stab it gently guide it underneath your tongue, right? And my, oh my, what a uncomfortable, often gag-inducing pleasant sensation that was.

There wasn't a way around it, though; because they had to figure out if you had a fever. And Lord knows if you were allowed to self-administer it, chances were you were going to run that thing under some warm water until it registered the requisite two or more degrees of fever, thus exempting you from the day of school. (Wait. You guys did that too, right? Right? Bueller? Bueller?)

Well, fortunately, when it comes to recognizing the symptoms of an unhealthy culture, we here at On The Mark Strategies believe a blog post is a less physically-invasive way of figuring out if your culture might be in need of a checkup. (For thoughts on other areas, check out this post.) So let's take a look at some symptoms of unhealthy culture.

Symptoms of an Unhealthy Culture: Everything is Measured, but Nothing Has Meaning

What I mean is this: We in leadership love to toss around platitudes like, "What gets measured gets done" and "Inspect what you expect" and "You can't manage what you don't measure."

None of those are wrong, in and of themselves; but if we're not careful, we'll inadvertently end up with something we don't want. We'll have an organization comprised of team members frantically running to and fro, talking in frenetic tones about tasks and timelines. Eventually, their work will become devoid of meaning, having been reduced merely to an ever-growing, overwhelming list of things (or numbers, perhaps, not that there's anything inherently wrong with either of those) for which they're responsible.

Things (or again, numbers) for which we're merely responsible can become nothing more than stress-inducers. There's nothing wrong with measurement, and there's nothing wrong with coaching and accountability, assuming they're done well. But getting those things wrong can quickly lead to a toxic environment.

symptoms of unhealthy culture metrics minus meaning equals misery

Symptoms of an Unhealthy Culture: There's Too Little Healthy Debate

Now don't wag your finger at me and claim it's all in the name of "efficiency" or something. (I say this with a twinkle in my eye and a smile on my face.)

I know there's a time and place for wrapping up conversations and making decisions — believe me. I've coached clients on that very thing. BUT...

symptoms of unhealthy culture nodding and smiling

Happy, trusting, high-performing teams who care about each other and the team's goals will engage in discussion and debate about strategies and tactics because those things matter. They're important. And since teammates care an awful lot about each other and the team doing well, of course they're going to talk together about the potential strengths and weaknesses of potential ideas, regardless of whose they are! Now naturally, if people don't talk about things openly together...

Symptoms of an Unhealthy Culture: The Truth Often Comes Out in the Meeting After the Meeting

If teams can sit through meeting and after meeting talking about things that are a big deal — strategies, tactics, and so on — and team members are basically just on auto-pilot, nodding and smiling, then you can safely assume that there's some major tip-toeing going on.

Another Symptom of an Unhealthy Culture? Performance or Culture Issues Rarely Get Addressed

There are certainly oodles (a very scientific measurement) of things that contribute to an organization's culture showing signs of duress, but this is one that can do significant damage quickly if it's not addressed.

You'll notice, too, that I mentioned both performance and culture issues here. That's because both of those things — if left to themselves — can wreak havoc on a team's ability to perform well.

Performance issues and culture issues take up a team's mental, emotional, and performance bandwidth because everyone spends time thinking about the issues, skirting around the issues, handling the people/issues with kid gloves, managing their behaviors so as not to "trigger" the others' "things," and so on.

Maybe it's a teammate's chronic negativity, or maybe it's something a bit more difficult to put your finger on. For example, perhaps a teammate's attitude, mindset, and workplace behavior isn't inherently wrong, per se; but they're antithetical to your organization's attitude, mindset, and behavioral norms. As such, that teammate is more often than not straining against the direction and values of the organization.

Left unaddressed, not only are you doing a disservice to both that teammate and the rest of the team, but you can also be fairly certain that friction, tension, and cultural drain of the attitude is costing you — daily.

Symptoms of an Unhealthy Culture: People Don't Ask for Your Input

Everyone just does their own thing. It points to a lack of vulnerability, humanness, and trust. There's little real openness and collaboration. Or...

People Ask for Input, But...

symptoms of an unhealthy culture person not listening

...folks get the distinct impression it's not actually wanted. It's that thing where as you're providing the requested input, you can feel the ones who asked for it tapping their feet impatiently under the table. You know they're just waiting for you to finish so they can move on to what they actually want to be doing.

Symptoms of an Unhealthy Culture: Your Development? Your Problem.

In other words, if you want to learn something, it's almost entirely up to you to get it done.

Now don't misunderstand me here. I'm actually a MASSIVE proponent of people taking the initiative in their own development rather than waiting for some sort of corporate mandate to be delivered from on high.

High performers don't wait to be told to learn and grow. They just go get it. But that's not really what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about those organizations and/or teams where folks are basically on their own when it comes to learning and growth.

Oh, sure, there will be all sorts of reasons why people aren't provided that support, but folks in today's marketplace know they're largely hogwash.

And Last, but Not Least, People are Promoted by Default

You know the drill.

Work a place long enough, keep breathing, don't commit manslaughter, and eventually you'll be promoted into management because, you know, those are the prerequisites for great leadership.


What have YOU seen?

You tell us. Let us know in the comments below what leaders, managers, and organizations should be watching for when it comes to culture. What are the warning signs that an organization's culture might be starting to become unhealthy? Do you have suggestions for being a positive influence within an unhealthy environment? We'd love to hear!

Mark Arnold
Founder and CEO