Five Signs It's Time for a Culture Overhaul

Culture and its impact on employees and organizational success cannot be overstated. The behavioral definition of culture is, patterns of behavior that are reinforced or punished by people and systems over time. Since all business is behavior, this definition is especially important for understanding your culture and how it impacts overall performance.

Leaders often have the biggest influence on culture simply because of their role in dictating what these systems look like. Too often we see daily actions from leaders that are contradictory to the kinds of behaviors and culture they aim to promote.  This misalignment is not intentional, but the impact is astounding. Here are five patterns of behavior which are strong indicators that your culture needs a facelift; not your workforce. 

  1. Low Productivity: If productivity is at a minimum or hovering just above, there is a reason for that. Employees have likely learned that going above and beyond what is expected doesn’t provide a better outcome so there is no reason to exert the extra effort. If leaders want discretionary effort from employees, they need to positively reinforce the work that contributes to organizational targets.
  2. Ineffective Coaching: The role of a coach is to help an employee improve, but if the coaching is not working, this could be another sign that the culture is the culprit. Either the employees do not value the person the feedback is coming from (hint: try building rapport), or because their learning history proves that even if they change their behavior, they won’t be readily recognized or reinforced for their efforts. 
  3. Overuse of Threats: Using a “do-it or else” approach may get results but the results come at a cost and are typically short term. In a culture with too much negative reinforcement, employees will only do what is necessary in order to avoid a bad outcome. So do not expect discretionary effort here. Also, relying on threats to manage behavior leaves employees feeling fearful. Employees who are scared are less likely to engage in teamwork, will avoid communicating with leaders (helpful information will be missed), and will jump ship at the first opportunity. 
  4. Little to No Upward Feedback: To be effective, all leaders need to hear from employees when they are doing things right and when there are opportunities for improvement. A culture that does not provide a means for employees to give feedback to their leaders is one that is ignoring opportunities for continuous improvement. It also sends a signal that employees are somehow “less than” their leading counterparts and have nothing to learn from them.
  5. Us Against Them: Employees with an “us against them mentality” have experienced broken promises, unclear or unrealistic expectations, excessive criticism, and a significant absence of recognition for their contribution to the organization. The culmination of these practices leads to a culture in which employees and leaders are constantly at odds, rather than cohesively working towards unified goals.

Every day, leaders reinforce or discourage the behavior of their workforce. Though the intention may be pure, the impact is evident when we look at the patterns of behavior of the employees who are on the receiving end. Every leader wants high performers and great results, but their behavior might just be the thing standing in the way. If you see any or all of these signs above, it’s time to overhaul the culture and invest in developing effective leaders. 

Posted by Emily Moses

Emily Moses is an adviser and partner to clients across industries, and has a unique understanding of the driving forces of behavior, how profit and loss impact a company's sustainability, and how these variables interrelate.