Toxic Company Cultures: 5 of the Ugliest Anti-Patterns

An anti-pattern is a common response to a recurring problem that is usually ineffective and risks being highly counterproductive.

When we're talking about happiness in the workplace, it's important to understand just how bad things things can get, before we can then look at ways to improve. Enter company culture anti-patterns. An anti-pattern is consistently applying bad solutions to recurring problems. They frequently occur in corporates; here, we look at 5 of the most annoying, frustrating, and happiness-draining anti-patterns; and how to resolve them (or avoid them altogether).

1. Mine's bigger than yours

Having spent much of my career in the property industry (with its higher-than-average prevalence of alpha-males) I've seen my fair share of this narcissistic anti-pattern. This is where the importance of a leader is largely determined by material factors such as the size of their office, the size of their desk, the quality of their chair, whether their car is parked in a covered carspace or not, the proximity of their car to their office, the quality of their laptop and mobile... I could go on! It can lead to a ridiculous game of one-upmanship that undermines the morale and respect employees have for their leaders. Whilst this hierarchical (and in my mind, archaic) culture might be great for the leaders themselves, what message is this sending staff?

The solution? All staff should be provided with the tools necessary to be as productive as possible. What these tools look like will vary from company to company, culture to culture. I advocate for perks that promote the behaviours that contribute to the company's culture. For example, instead of the closest carspaces being automatically provided to leadership, why not include them in a 'perks pool' and allocate temporary carspaces as a reward and recognition to employees (including leaders) for a job well done? When recognition is specific and deliberately delivered, it is even more motivating than money!

2. The No Asshole Rule

I'm not being rude - this is actually the name of a very insightful book by Robert Sutton on building a civil workplace and surviving one that isn't. Unfortunately, many of us have come across an asshole (or two!) in the workplace. These people do massive damage to victims, bystanders and family who suffer the ripple effects, company performance, and themselves. One asshole example from the book is Scott Rudin, a Hollywood producer, who routinely swore and hollered at his assistants. It's estimated he went through 250 personal assistants from 2000-2005. One assistant said he was fired for bringing Rudin the wrong breakfast muffin.

"As he slowly disappears behind his automatic closing door, the last thing I see is his finger, flipping me off".

There're a number of potential solutions here:

  • Firstly, be mindful that resident assholes will hire people like themselves, so keep them out of the hiring process (or pair them with a non-asshole).
  • Secondly, treat assholes as incompetent employees: even if they do other things extraordinarily well but persistently demean others, they should be treated as incompetent and handled accordingly.
  • Finally, model and teach constructive confrontations: develop a culture where people know when to argue and when to stop fighting. Teach employees how to approach people and problems positively, use evidence and logic, and attack problems, not people.

3. Peter Principle

How many times have we seen people promoted to leadership positions who really shouldn't be? The Peter Principle is a management theory concept about a person who gets promoted based on their performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Employees only stop being promoted once they can’t perform effectively. Or in other words:

“Managers rise to the level of their incompetence”.

Company cultures expressing this trait are often keen to demonstrate progression and succession planning, but have little understanding of the effect people managers have on the culture and performance of a team.

The solution lies in 3 key considerations:

  • People should be chosen to manage people on the basis of how good they are at managing people. Seems pretty straightforward, but time and again people are promoted because they are good at their job, rather than because they are good at managing people. Before making someone a manager, check to see if managing people is something they’re likely to be good at.
  • Focus on strengths – Gallup reports that people who use their strengths every day are 6 times more likely to be engaged on the job. Managers have unique opportunities in their daily interactions with employees to empower them to discover and develop their strengths, and they have the responsibility to position employees in roles where they can do what they do best every day. Have leaders and employees complete objective assessments of their strengths (such as StrengthsFinder 2.0) and use that data when looking at promoting to people management positions.
  • Succession planning – this is a process for identifying and developing internal people with the potential to fill key leadership positions within the company. Every company should have a succession planning program that identifies and fosters the next generation of leaders through mentoring, training and stretch assignments, so they are ready to take the helm when the time comes.

4. 'Us' and 'Them'

There's often a feeling of 'us' and 'them' between core business and non-core business in corporates (or between client facing and non-client facing; or revenue-earners and non-revenue earners), which is often shown in totally incommensurate but highly visible ways in a company's culture. These can range from seemingly small things - such as some teams having better biscuits in the kitchens than others - to the more extravagant. For example, an IT department might not be seen as a core business in a large pharmaceutical company, but the sales team (read: revenue-earners) are. As an end of year celebration the sales team head off to a tropical island whilst the poor second cousin, the IT department, get a $25 gift voucher per head to the local bowling club.

People have an inherent need for fairness. In the workplace, perceived injustice has been directly linked to burnout and job dissatisfaction. The challenge arises when one employee’s fairness often becomes another employee’s injustice.

What's the answer here?

  • The first step is acknowledgement. Creating a culture of fairness requires conscious effort and a consistent approach. While it's fantastic that efforts are rewarded, recognised and celebrated, consider the messages these are sending about how people are valued. Right down to the biscuits in the kitchens!
  • Treating people fairly is important. Ensuring that they feel fairly treated is even more important. In this, as in so many things, perception is reality. The solution will invariably be different for each company, but suggested questions that should be asked when assessing and addressing include: Does the company actively strive for both procedural and distributive fairness, avoiding unwarranted preferential treatment for specific individuals or departments? Are logical explanations for performance based compensation, bonuses and perks provided? At the end of the day, whether real or perceived, a sense of injustice in the workplace erodes happiness.

5. The Silo

Silos are when individual people or departments conduct business in a vacuum and resist sharing information and resources with other people or departments within the organisation. It's often driven by culture (i.e. 'that's the way it's always been done') and the wrong type of behaviour either being ignored or even encouraged (usually through complacency). It's often demonstrated in sales teams, where staff are remunerated by individual commissions and aren't incentivised to collaborate or cross-sell with other departments. For example, they may be unwilling to share contacts or opportunities with different departments for fear of a reduced or lost commission, irrespective of whether this is in the best interests of the client or wider company.

The solution lies in creating a strong company culture of communication, trust and transparency; as demonstrated by the leaders themselves. How?

  • Create a culture of gratitude. It's difficult for staff to be open and trusting when they feel under-appreciated. Recognise staff for their contributions to projects, and acknowledge when they make extra effort to get things done.
  • Find out what motivates team members. This is not to say that the rewards should be necessarily different from one team to another; but recognise that a particular team and/or individuals need different methods to motivate them to achieve the over-arching goals of the company. Leaders therefore need to establish what the best recognition approaches should be and then use the most apt motivation or incentivising methods to reward collaboration, sharing and company wide goal-achieving behaviour.

What's the bottom line? Consider what messages these anti-patterns are sending to staff; the impression these give of leadership (who knowingly or inadvertently condone this behaviour); and how much happiness and productivity can be improved by eliminating (or at the very least reducing) these common sources of frustration and unhappiness.

And the key to changing this is... firstly identifying which anti-patterns exist. Talk to staff and proactively challenging current processes and practices. What could you do, right now, to get started?