Culture killers can be lurking everywhere in your organization. Staying vigilant when it comes to these pitfalls can keep your employees happy and boost productivity—all while creating the kind of environment where people WANT to spend most of their week.

8 Minute Read

You don’t need to be a Greek philosopher* to know that the only constant in life is change (*Heraclitus, for the record). Smart business leaders recognize this goes double for them: the modern workspace is changing rapidly and what created success yesterday may not be true today. Especially in times of rapid change—whether that’s struggling to build business or facing new challenges that come with booming growth—it’s logical to put the bottom line first. But at what cost?

With feelings of uncertainty across the board, business leaders may be forgiven for putting company culture on the back burner; however, studies show that a winning company culture pays dividends in the long term. Harvard professors John Kotter and James Heskett estimate that companies with strong corporate culture saw a 756% average increase in net income over time versus 1% for competitors who had no such focus. That’s a staggering statistic. And in times of crisis (a global pandemic, for example), the net effect may be to speed up that disparity, taking good companies to great and leaving the competition in the dust. Moreover, when the going gets tough, employees increasingly look to leadership to set tone and direction. You may not be able to dictate every aspect of your company culture, but avoiding these 5 culture killers can mean the difference between thriving and just surviving.

1. Misalignment of Values

No one likes being sold a bill of goods, so when stated values don’t match reality, this could be a red flag your company culture is in peril. Recent history is littered with examples of companies whose principles concealed poor behavior and attitudes. Enron had “integrity” and “excellence” listed among its corporate values; Lehman Brothers went from a company that prided itself on relationships and client satisfaction to pursuing profits by any means necessary. These are extreme examples, but illustrative: noble intentions can quickly be derailed by competing priorities.

Value misalignment within an organization can happen for a variety of reasons: management change, operational adjustments, even just the natural passing of time. As a company grows and shifts, its values may shift as well. When was the last time you took a look at your mission statement and values? Are they aligned with what’s actually going on? Do they have real meaning for you and your employees?

You may have heard the term “change management” in business circles, which is the structured approach to shifting the people side of an organization. As we have seen over the last two years, change can also come suddenly and put pressure on your company’s ethos unexpectedly.

2. Employee Burnout

Employee burnout is real. No, it’s not a medical condition, but talk to any number of chronically stressed-out workers and they will tell you that burnout can sap the energy out of the most energetic workplaces. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes burnout as an occupational phenomenon characterized by “feelings of energy depletion/exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” In other words, the ramifications of burnout are not just overworked employees. Burnout can make employees feel disengaged, negative, and not performing at their best.

A September study from The Hartford reported that burnout rates remain around 61%—a remarkably high number that should ring alarm bells for business leaders. Even before the pandemic, a study from Kronos and Workplace found that 95% of HR leaders said employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention. And replacing valuable employees is expensive, not to mention difficult.

Burnout is a complicated topic, which is why there is no “one size fits all” answer to fixing it. If burnout is a result of unhealthy workloads, it may be time to take a hard look at what’s at stake. Do your clients have unrealistic expectations for you to be “on call” 24/7? Are employees dealing with unreasonable expectations? Perhaps most importantly: are you damaging performance in the name of speed or arbitrary deadlines?

Once you have a good idea of what is causing workplace burnout, you can start tackling it and save your company culture from its ravages.

For those who work from home, burnout can look and feel different. Consider that you may need to draw clearer boundaries between work life and home life, which may not be obvious when your desk is in the same room as your bed. Not being in an office surrounded by co-workers may also lead to feeling disconnected or lacking in support. Talk with your manager about ways to boost team cohesiveness while working remotely.

3.Toxic People

Yep, there’s one in every bunch. Toxic personalities can cut through a healthy culture like a hot knife through butter. One study from Randstad showed that 38% of workers want to leave their jobs due to a toxic work culture or one where they feel like they don’t fit in.

So, what do toxic people look like? They may be more insidious than you think, especially if you are new to a company and eager to fit in. For example, someone who gossips may seem friendly and inclusive (“us vs. them”)—until that gossip is turned against you. Or you may not know a co-worker is hoarding information or not holding up their end of a commitment until it negatively impacts your performance. Other signs you may be dealing with a toxic person include negativity, a constant victim mentality, unhealthy competitiveness, jealousy, excessive ego, or inappropriate comments and behaviors.

Don’t be afraid to distance yourself from toxic people who are energy vampires—chances are they won’t last long in a company with good company culture. Try to exercise empathy, positivity, and taking the high road with people whose behavior may be rooted in insecurity. Building great relationships with positive co-workers will also help you “find your people” in an organization.

Obviously, some behaviors are entirely reprehensible and need to be handled as such. In that case, escalate appropriately. Try to keep emotion out of the conversation and maintain a list of instances that negatively affect your job performance. As a business leader, take these concerns seriously and communicate with your HR department. Also, surround yourself with great people who believe in your vision and authentically build up others. There can be a temptation to accept bad behavior from “high performers” but ultimately great culture wins the day.

4. Lack of Appreciation

Like your mother once said, please and thank you go a long way. Not feeling appreciated at work—especially in times of change, and especially when work is long and onerous—can stifle company culture.

Have you ever seen a busy kitchen environment at a restaurant with good company culture? When approaching a blind spot, workers say “corner!” and gratitude is given out like candy on Halloween (“Thank you, chef!”). This doesn’t happen because people who work in restaurants are inherently nicer, but because everyone recognizes this creates a more pleasant and efficient work environment.

Workplaces are interpersonal, so making sure people are appreciated—even in small ways—can greatly boost company culture. On “Making It Thrive: The Company Culture Podcast,” host Lizzie Benton interviewed managing director of Trusted Media Dean Lynn, who has worked in marketing for over 15 years. Lynn says he was horrified at a firm when leadership rejected the idea that managers should have simple one-on-one check-ins with their direct reports to ask them how they are doing. The lack of small gestures of kindness made management seem unapproachable and created an unnecessary sense of bureaucracy and red tape across the organization.

Business leaders can look to cultivate empathy and show gestures of appreciation to meaningfully invest in their company culture.

5. “Perks” That Aren’t

The ping pong table. The free snacks. The electric bicycle. We’ve seen it all when it comes to employee perks that, well, aren’t. Three months later that same ping pong table is taking up otherwise useful space in a conference room; everyone argues over the snacks; and the neglected bicycle has a deflated wheel.

It may be useful to ask: are these perks at all, or rather a poor attempt at appealing to some demographic that never wanted them in the first place? Perks (as opposed to real benefits like health insurance and paid leave) have diminishing returns when it comes to employee happiness. Worst of all, some perks may feel more like a curse in disguise: free snacks and dry cleaning mean more time in the office, blurring the line between work and sacred personal time.

It's not that any individual perk is bad. But going back to culture killer #1: Is it aligned with your overall values? Aside from fair compensation, workers top desires are a) flexible/smart working strategies, b) proper work/life balance, and c) job satisfaction.

When leadership considers the overall environment, it indicates a commitment to employees’ health and wellness. If your employees spend a lot of time at their desks, think about creating a space people WANT to be in. Change can be great for bodies, too: Research shows that a workplace with height-adjustable desks like those from Vari can help beat inactivity, burn calories, and help alleviate back pain. Think of it less like a perk and more like a way of life.

Indeed, it may be hard to avoid all of these pitfalls at once, so prudence and patience is necessary. Don’t be discouraged if your wins come slowly—change is always on the horizon, whatever the speed.