Is Your Culture in Trouble?


Your culture always wins. A great strategy executed by a mediocre culture is destined for less than stellar results. The change that will transform your business is destined to fail if the culture won’t support it. A destructive culture breeds mistrust, apathy, and eventual decline in performance.

Here are seven signs that your culture is deteriorating. A single symptom is a cause for concern. Alarms should sound if you see two or three. If you are experiencing most or all of these, take immediate action. You may be on borrowed time and not realize it.

  1. High turnover and low morale. Are your best employees leaving to pursue other opportunities? Are those remaining demoralized and lethargic as they perform their duties? Is blaming others for poor performance or not delivering results common? Are the most used words by your team “It’s not my job?”

  2. Lack of consistency. Cultures that are in trouble are surprised when things go as planned. Consistency is the mark of a culture of excellence. Southwest Airlines cleans, services and loads its airplanes in twenty-five minutes. Wegman’s delivers excellent service every day. This happens because of disciplined consistency, not luck.

  3. Lack of focus on the external environment. High performing cultures consistently focus on serving the customer. Cultures in distress look internally at all the things that are going wrong. Statements begin with the words, “If only they...” and customers are often viewed and treated with disdain.

  4. Short-term thinking. Constant attention to current results is no excuse for short-term thinking. Organizations that lurch from crisis to crisis soon find that they cannot function without the motivation of an imminent catastrophe. A culture that trades long-term vision for an exclusive focus on short-term crisis drains energy and limits the organization’s ability to grow.

  5. Rise of subcultures. Pride in one’s team is admirable. Allowing team pride to deteriorate into organizational silos surrounded by motes is a sure sign of a fractured culture. Subcultures exist in many forms. Identification with the department, shift, bargaining unit, or even an individual supervisor to the exclusion of the organization are all examples of team identity crumbling into destructive subcultures.

  6. Undermining the success of others. Disagreements turn into vendettas. Information is purposely withheld. Blame is shifted to others rather than accepted. These are the symptoms of a culture where “TEAM” is considered a four-letter word and trust is a symbol of weakness.

  7. Increased cynicism. Positive cultures take a critical look at change and then embrace those that make the organization better. Cultures that are in trouble look at all change – good or bad – through cynical eyes that assume the worst possible outcome.

Your effort to reverse the impact of a negative culture must address the following three factors:

  • Assumptions, beliefs, and values. Assumptions, beliefs, and values, both stated and unstated, drive every aspect of how your organization performs. They define how customers, employees, and vendors are treated. They guide decision-making and risk taking. And, they influence what is possible and permitted. Now is the time to confirm what you stand for and is critical for success. And then, ensure that every person at every level is held accountable for living up to your good intentions.
  • Language, legends, and symbols. Be intentional with the words used by leaders. Talk about what is possible. Paint a picture of a positive future. Tell stories and share examples of performance and behavior that demonstrates the culture you want. Most important, pay attention to symbolic decisions such has who gets promoted, receives the best raises, and has developmental assignments.
  • Habits. Excellence, as Aristotle reminded us, is not an accident. It is a habit formed through repetition. And, habits define your culture. In organizations, habits are formed through processes and systems reinforced by education, training, and leadership attention. First, tackle the behaviors and performance that will have the most visible impact on how you treat customers and each other. And realize that paying attention to and refining your organization’s habits is a never-ending process toward excellence.


If your culture is in trouble, your organization is in trouble. You can change it by creating and reinforcing habits that represent what you truly believe about people, performance, and results.