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dysfunctional work culture - Keogh Consulting

February | Culture by Design | Read time: calculating...

How to identify and fix a dysfunctional work culture in your organisation

A dysfunctional work culture can wreak havoc on your organisation from the ground up. Cultivate the best outcome for your business through identifying, mitigating and resolving a company culture gone awry.

Work culture is like a flower bed. You have the vibrant, healthy flowers, the shrubs, the soil and fertiliser to support growth, but you also have the weeds. The weeds infiltrate your happy, co-existing flower bed and ruin it from the soil up. Identifying and understanding what those weeds are, and how to pull them out by their roots, is the key to identifying and mitigating, a dysfunctional work culture. 

What is a dysfunctional work culture?

Work or workplace culture – your flower bed – is the personality of your company. It is how work gets done, and influences the behaviour and habits of employees. Work culture as a broader term refers to the work environment, company mission, value, ethics, expectations and goals of a business. A dysfunctional work culture is one that is toxic and inefficient, arising from a multitude of issues, one of which is leadership.

What does a dysfunctional work culture look like?

Recognising a dysfunctional work culture cannot always be done through a special test, or specific formula. Whilst there are some diagnostics that can be run, a dysfunctional work culture can be more easily found through observations, and asking yourself as part of the management team the tough questions. 

  • Are we, as the leadership team, the problem? Culture is heavily influenced by leadership. Ineffectual leaders, authoritarian figures and divisive personalities could point to a dysfunctional work culture. Taking a long, hard look at yourselves as the leaders is imperative in understanding where this dysfunction could be stemming from. 
  • Do we have a high turnover rate? When people are unhappy, it is unlikely they will stick around. High turnover could be a telling sign that things aren’t right with your work culture. Whilst it may not always be work culture related, it can be helpful to ascertain with leaving employees why it is they are leaving. 
  • Do we have ongoing employee disputes? Conflict is a sure sign of a dysfunctional work culture. Whilst some conflict between employees can be healthy, ongoing conflicts that arise in multiple departments or levels of your company is not. 
  • Are our employees disengaged, or showing signs of unhappiness? Absenteeism, declining quality or service, declining productivity, customer satisfaction and even employee theft are signs that point to disengaged, unhappy employees. Through these behaviours and many others, your staff are telling you that your workplace culture is no longer working for them. 
  • Are our customers sticking around? If you are noticing an increase in customer attrition, it is likely they are feeling the effects of a dysfunctional culture. Unhappy staff are less willing to make happy customers, and people will be less willing to stick around for that behaviour.
  • Are we suffering from a lack of innovation? Exciting work is at a standstill, processes are the same and there is no free-flowing of ideas. Staff may feel unwilling to push for change and present new ideas if they feel like they won’t be listened to. 

An unhappy workplace is tense, dull and plagued with inefficiency and inadequacy. If you look for it, it can be quite obvious that the work culture is dysfunctional. Are meetings usually listless and disorganised? Does confusion reign over an understanding between employees? Is there hostility? Once you recognise the signs by asking the tough questions, it is time to take action

Identifying the weeds before they sprout; what are the warning signs of a dysfunctional work culture?

The destructive weeds in your flower bed of work culture don’t sprout from nothing, and once you begin to observe your workplace culture, you can start to identify the warning signs. 

  • Perhaps your management team is behind the times, following a more traditional hierarchy or simply not evolving. When employees see that processes and policies aren’t changing to reflect the times, or management isn’t willing to modernise or adapt their behaviour they could become disengaged and uninterested. Why would they try to make a difference, go the extra mile and go out on a limb if management won’t bother?
  • Similarly, a dysfunctional work culture is one where innovation is not valued. When the culture doesn’t allow for the autonomy of all to create something new, or push for change, nothing can grow (no flowers in this garden bed!) A company that thrives on both individual and collective innovation creates a culture of rapid change and diversity of thought, reflecting the way of the world as we know it. 
  • Where there is no clear organisational vision or set of values, and/or where employees can’t quite see the connection for them, restlessness and inefficiency are abundant. With nothing to follow, nothing to strive for and nothing to guide employees with, how can anything worthwhile get done?  
  • Shutting down debate and discouraging challenges silences employees, and stunts the growth of the flowers in your flower bed. A healthy work culture allows room for constructive debate and relevant challenges, because that is how you evolve. You could be showing signs of a dysfunctional work culture when these types of conversations are not encouraged, and swiftly shut down. 
  • Where there is complacency and resistance to discussing culture, it is already dysfunctional. Similar to where debate is shut down, when you become complacent and resistant to talk about who you are as a company and what you value, you are stunting growth and not allowing room for conversations to happen. 
  • If communication is ineffective, and expectations are unclear, how can you expect efficiency and hard work? A dysfunctional work culture thrives through miscommunication and misguidance. 
  • Do your employees understand how they can become more successful, and how they can strive for promotions? If not, this poor transparency is reflected in your culture, where employees feel like they are stuck in one place or can’t grow in their roles. A high employee turnover rate can also reflect this. 
  • Drops in profitability and productivity go hand in hand with a dysfunctional work culture. If you observe a disengagement of employees, you are likely to have noticed these dips in profitability and productivity. When your flowers aren’t watered and fertilised regularly (like a healthy workplace culture), they won’t grow, and weeds will overthrow the whole flower bed. Just like a disengaged staff won’t work harder for your company
  • An authoritarian style of leadership can contribute heavily to a dysfunctional workplace. If a workplace is tense and anxious as a result of a severe leadership style, there is less room for growth. Inefficiency, resentment and dissatisfaction is likely to build and no culture can survive in that environment.  (lack of trust abounds) 
  • High employee turnover rates go hand in hand with a dysfunctional work culture. In an ever-evolving world, employees are becoming less and less willing to put up with an unhealthy culture. Employers nailing their culture exist all around us, and nobody is willing to stick around when they can find it elsewhere. 
  • Dysfunctional work culture isn’t always the result of ineffectual leadership, but can also be due to ineffective recruiting. One bad weed can easily destroy the whole flower bed if they aren’t plucked from the root from the outset. 
  • Customer attrition is another warning sign of a dysfunctional work culture. When employees are unhappy and disengaged, it is highly unlikely they would be putting in the work to keep their customers happy as well. This toxicity feeds into every interaction of your employees, and customers may not be willing to stick around if they feel they are not being looked after. 

Pulling out the weeds; how to fix a dysfunctional work culture

Whether the weeds of dysfunction have well and truly blossomed, or are just beginning to bud, fixing your dysfunctional work culture is the number one priority for your company. But therein lies the question: how? 

  • Begin with accepting responsibility. Resolution begins at acceptance and admitting fault for inaction. When disgruntled employees see that self-awareness and accountability are taking place, they may feel that the leadership team respects them and are willing to admit to their faults. Nobody is perfect, and leaders make mistakes too. 
  • Discover what your employees need from you. All employees are different, and therefore have different needs. For example, baby boomers are loyal but may not respond to authority well. Whereas millennials are focused on working on their strengths, and may not like to dwell or work on their weaknesses. When you start to listen and understand what your employees need, you can start to implement a healthier culture that they can respond to. 
  • Encourage innovation. Encourage debate. Encourage discussion. Listen to what your employees have to say. Get real with them and let them tell you what is wrong. Do they feel like they are stuck in the same place with their career? Show them how they can change that. Do they feel like they can’t question authority? Encourage them to debate constructively, with you, with other employees, with leadership. Give them a space to discuss and reflect. 
  • Set clear company values and an organisational vision. Show employees what their work, behaviour and mindset should reflect by outlining exactly what you expect from them, and what the company stands for. When there is a better understanding of who you are as a company, it allows room to explore that as an employee. 
  • Sometimes, an overhaul of management styles is needed for a business to evolve. If you are stuck in rut, far behind the times, or if your leadership style is quite authoritarian, employees will not respond kindly. Working collaboratively with your employees and listening to their needs is what will make you an effective leadership team. Engage them in decision making and delegate effectively. 
  • Finally, be open to discussing and improving culture. Build trust, establish goals and commend employees for their work. This immediately boosts productivity and profitability as staff feel safe and understood, and are for more willing to work harder and better for their team. Rebuild your community with openness and compassion, we are all only human after all. 

Flower bed maintenance; how to mitigate or avoid developing a dysfunctional work culture

Mitigating and avoiding a dysfunctional work culture begins with thoughtfulness and emotional connection, like a flower bed blooms because of rich soil and regular watering. 

  • Restoring a healthy workplace culture is not easy, and avoiding it entirely is a feat in itself. Offer transparent leadership that encourages healthy emotional ties between employees, management and even stakeholders. You may have to make compromises and ask for tough sacrifices, but the long term benefits far outweigh an ongoing toxic workplace culture. 
  • Ensure your employees feel listened to, and keep communication open to all. Empower regular meetings, an open-door policy and be willing to hear out issues, even if you don’t necessarily agree. Listening is free, and can be the turning point for your workplace culture.
  • Encourage autonomy, and empower staff to make their own decisions related to their work. You hired them for a reason, right? Some constraints are obviously necessary, but a level of trust goes a long way. 
  • Recognise and reward employees for their efforts. A simple email, a hand-written note, a thank you breakfast, or even grabbing their coffee as you pick up yours, will go a long way. Life is often a thankless task, and employees need credit where credit is due. 

Listen, be proactive and don’t give up. Dysfunctional work culture is a difficult, uphill battle, but once it is improved upon, the benefits are endless. Don’t be afraid to pull the weeds out by the roots and be sure to water your flowers, a flower bed can be quite the beautiful affair. 

If you’d like to reshape work culture within your organisation and increase employee engagement, Keogh Consulting has extensive experience in helping implement and manage the sometimes difficult process. Get in touch with us today! 

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1. Dysfunctional work culture
2. What is a dysfunctional work culture?
3. What does a dysfunctional work culture look like?
4. What are the warning signs of a dysfunctional work culture?
5. How to fix a dysfunctional work culture
6. How to mitigate developing a dysfunctional work culture?