Is Your Workplace Culture Dysfunctional?

A few years ago, I spoke with the leaders of an organization about helping them to better support employee wellbeing and leadership development. As any good consultant would, I did my research, which included perusing the organization’s Website. It appeared these leaders really got it – accolades everywhere about how their company was a great place to work, how they truly valued their employees as their most valued asset, and how their “values” reflected this.

I started telling the group that any wellbeing and improvement effort needed to be a natural extension of the current culture where employees feel truly valued, and that it seemed their organization was in a good position to succeed. The VP of HR then looked at me and said, “Yeah, we must have a REALLY good PR firm because that is most definitely not how life is around here… we have LOTS of work to do.”

Culture shapes employee behaviors. Sometimes the behaviors are aligned with the company’s desired culture, vision and values, and sometimes the culture manifests deviant behavior.

  • When organizations are faced with employees not behaving in ways they would like (i.e., deviant behavior), organizations try to figure out how to control or change individual behaviors rather than look at how the culture is actually feeding those undesired behaviors. The result is a lot of unnecessary struggle and limited results.
  • The American Psychological Association Center for Organizational Excellence described in a November 2013 article how dysfunctional workplace culture actually increases deviant behavior.
  • Organizations contribute to increasing dysfunction and workplace deviance by creating stressful environments and producing a sense of injustice – much of which starts with a toxic leader or leaders.

One way to determine the health or functionality of your culture is with a culture survey. However, used incorrectly, the survey can also mask dysfunction. Consider this example of a large healthcare organization who hired Gallup each year to implement its Q12® engagement survey.

In speaking with some employees, I learned of a norm created in several departments with regards to the survey. When survey time came each year, new employees were told to “rate everything with 4s and 5s – even if it’s not the case.” Employees learned if they didn’t rate everything high, their managers would have to “have THE talk with them” and it would be uncomfortable. More importantly, nothing would change. So to avoid this, employees learned to game the survey. Think about it: Each year management was likely beaming over the great survey results and spending considerable resources to deploy this survey, yet the results were invalid. And it only served to further the disconnect between management and the employee experience.

I’m not suggesting engagement surveys or culture surveys are not useful; they can be very helpful. However, if the underlying culture is dysfunctional, the chances of getting meaningful feedback may be limited. So how do you know if your workplace culture is dysfunctional? There are telltale signs.

Indicators of a Dysfunctional Workplace Culture

A dysfunctional culture is one that, “…constrains or limits individual- and group-level capabilities and/or that actually encourages and rewards mediocre individual- and group-level performance” (Van Fleet & Griffin, 2006, p. 699), and it leads to workplace deviance.

There are many indicators of a dysfunctional culture. Here is just a small checklist of some of the most prevalent manifestations of a dysfunctional culture:

  • Your best employees are leaving the organization.
  • Stress levels are high.
  • There’s a lack of trust and great apprehension with any new initiative or change management tries to implement.
  • People have stopped bringing forward ideas.
  • Collaboration is not great; people tend to operate in silos.
  • Innovation has slowed or halted.
  • Participation in company events is low.
  • You have a wellness program or healthy options in the workplace, but people either don’t participate or are just going through the motions.
  • You have an increase in strains, sprains and low back injuries.
  • You have an increase in behavioral health, GI, headache, and back pain claims, and an increase in anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication use.

If you find you have a slightly or even a significantly dysfunctional culture, it needs attention ASAP! Not only is it critical for your survival and future growth, but it is a critical prerequisite to successfully deploy any change initiative. If your culture is at all dysfunctional, you can be pretty much guaranteed that any traditional wellness program focused on behavior change and incentives will fail and have unintended consequences. Your best bet is to refocus efforts on creating thriving organizational wellbeing.  

Where to Start?

  • Make sure the executive team is truly a cohesive team. Even in reasonably functional cultures I have found that most executive teams are not operating as a truly cohesive team. Once we work to build the team’s cohesiveness, it makes a huge difference and fuels other initiatives.
  • Ensure clarity of CORE company values. This is not the same as how most companies define their values. How many companies do you know that have these great sounding values on display: Integrity, Passion, Creativity, Innovation, Community Service, etc.? Patrick Lencioni describes these as aspired values or “permission-to-play.” They are not at the core of what the company is – why it exists and what makes it unique. If you want employees to feel attached to the greater organizational purpose, you must define your core values.
  • Intentionally harness your CORE values and desired culture. Culture is a moving target; just like a garden, it has to be tended. You need to not only have clarity of your current state and where you want to be, but you must embrace accountability to protect your desired culture. Companies should ultimately hire, develop and manage performance and fire based on culture fit FIRST.
  • Deploy a comprehensive leadership development plan. Many organizations offer manager and leader training that is not aligned and pulled together in a comprehensive strategy. Quality leadership development plans need to account for current and future leaders, include efforts to build more effective thinking patterns for leaders, and help leaders embrace accountability to intentionally harness the desired culture.
  • Implement a welldefined communication strategy. Do you know what types of information your employees want to hear? Many want to know more about the state of the company, what the greater purpose is for their work, and how they fit into the picture. You want to make sure you communicate in a way employees want and also have consistent messaging coming from all levels of management. Effective communication also involves truly listening to employees and letting them know they were heard (even if ideas can’t be implemented).

If you start with these five things, you will be well on your way to healing from dysfunction. You CAN’T work around it. And you can’t make up for a dysfunctional culture with a wellness program!

Rosie Ward, PhD, MPH, MCHES, BCC, CIC®, CVS-FR Rosie is an accomplished speaker, writer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in worksite health promotion and organizational development. In addition to her bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Public Health, and a doctorate in Organization and Management, Rosie is also a Certified Intrinsic Coach® Mentor, Certified Judgment Index Consultant, a Certified Valuations Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. Rosie uses this unique combination to work with executive and leadership teams to create comprehensive development strategies centered on shifting thinking patterns. She is a contributing author to the book, “Organization Development in Healthcare — High Impact Practices for a Complex and Changing Environment.” She leverages these principles to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a thriving workplace culture that values and supports wellbeing and the unique, intrinsic needs of employees. Contact Rosie at or

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