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This is part of a two-month series on the importance of company culture. Find more posts about culture here.


"Achtung Minen" warning signSo your employees are sending anthrax to customers and putting heads on sticks in front of your office. Maybe something is wrong with your culture?

In all seriousness, the signs of a bad culture are actually quite subtle. And if you’re in a leadership position, they can be even harder to spot. Everyone puts on a good face for the boss; it’s what they do in their daily job that matters.

How can you spot cultural warning signs?

Look through messages sent from employees to customers (tweets, support ticket responses, etc).

This sounds creepy (and maybe it is, a little), but the point is not to find individual infractions and call someone out on it. Instead, you’re looking to see what the general attitude is. Do you see a lot of “sorry man, that’s just the way it is”? Or do you see more “yikes, that really sucks, I’ll see if the dev team can possibly do anything about that”? They both say sorry, but the second response is clearly from someone who cares a lot more.

Ask your team if the company is following its values.

While this is absolutely not the ONLY tactic you should use, it can be illustrative. Survey your staff once or twice a year and ask them to anonymously rate the company on their performance of your company values. See a value that’s hurting? Try to find out why.

Hang out in other rooms.

While you risk the “oh, the boss is here” phenomenon, spending time with different groups of employees can really give you a sense of how they talk and act. Don’t be skeevy about it, though…if someone says something that doesn’t fit the values, discuss it with them. Don’t make them feel like you’re spying on them. Instead, you’re there to help train and guide.

Understand what’s sarcasm and what’s bitterness.

This can be tough, as they look pretty similar. Sarcasm is a necessary part of daily life (and a good way to blow off steam). But if someone continues to make jokes at the expense of your values (“sure, we’ll build that feature…as soon as our frakking customers learn how to use the ones we already have”), it might represent an underlying problem.

Keep an eye out for complacency.

Complacency, silence, and agreement can be great anti-signs. If people don’t argue, it’s probably because they’re trying to slip under the radar. Humans disagree constantly. Your employees agreeing with everything means they don’t care enough to disagree.

The above image is from a great post by Olivier Blanchard. He talks about not just “caring”, but “giving a shit”. The people who just say they “care” are bad news:

“[Complacent] people…are everywhere. It isn’t that they are necessarily lazy. Some are, but some are just apathetic. Doing what they do is a job. A paycheck. Nothing more. They spend their day watching the clock. They are out the door as soon as their work day is over and not a minute more. This is not the kind of employee you want. I don’t care if you are managing a hospital, a restaurant or a global brand, people like this are poison. They are engines of mediocrity, lackluster service, and lousy customer experiences.”

If the guy over in accounts doesn’t care, then soon the person in customer support is going to wonder why they should care about customers with annoying problems. Soon the developers are going to wonder why they should write great code when they can still get paid for lackluster code. Soon you have a sick, dying organization that doesn’t care. This is just as bad as someone being malicious. In fact, it may be worse…because it’s contagious.


The truth about culture is that it’s quite hard to take its pulse. These tips will help, but make sure your first focus is defining values, hiring people who really and truly believe in them, and giving positive reinforcement when staff live by them.

And finally, it’s worth additional emphasis that good culture doesn’t mean everyone is perfect. It’s about general attitudes and biases. It’s the difference between “man, that customer means well but he sure is frustrating” instead of “that guy’s a jerk.” Sounds like a little thing, but it can mean the difference between a Woot and a Bigbuzzy.

Warning photo courtesy of fw190a8.

Caution photo courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker.

Evan Hamilton

About Evan Hamilton