Why your work culture sucks (and how to fix it)

Work Culture

I could potentially write 10 million words on work culture — and perhaps some day in the (still distant) future, I will. For now, though, here’s a blog about work culture. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart. I went to graduate business school for ‘organizational development’ because I cared about work culture. I could have gone for a traditional MBA but truth be told, I don’t care that much about finance and operations. (“Just as long as I getting paid, yo!”) Work culture shapes everything else, IMHO. And yet, we pay very little attention to it. Why is that? And what can be done? Let’s explore.

Why your work culture sucks: A violation of core business tenets

All organizations are different. By that logic, all organizations have a different work culture. So everything that will be said here may not totally apply to you. We good so far? Yay.

Work has several fundamental flaws. One of them, especially in for-profit companies, is myopia. Companies are often set up on quarterly systems. As a result, it’s all about now now now. You gotta “make the quarter.” I just got laid off from a privately-held company (not beholden to investors at base) and the work culture was the same there. In short, daily tasks murdered any focus on strategy at most places.

This leads directly to “The Spreadsheet Mentality.” Most leaders want rows of data they can look at, “analyze,” and make a decision. In reality, most leaders can barely read a balance sheet without someone explaining it to them, but eh. The way we design most organizations is about do it now and make it measurable. This leads to myopia and an over-focus on things that can be tracked.

Work culture doesn’t fit either category. It’s not myopic, because it takes a long time to evolve and develop. It’s not eminently trackable aside from consultant surveys and net promoter scores, and everyone knows the answers to those are often not the best barometer.

In essence, then, having a good work culture would mean your company has to violate two of the core tenets of “how business is done.” That’s an uphill battle.

Why your work culture sucks, Part 2: Bad advice

Most organizations endeavor to solve the ‘bad work culture’ problem in one of three ways:

  • Toss it to HR
  • Hire consultants
  • Buy some type of ’employee engagement software’

All three ideas are terrible. Here’s why:

So now we’re at a nice crossroads. We want a better work culture, right? But to do that, we’ve got to:

  • Violate two major tenets of how our top brass think about work
  • Figure out a new solution that doesn’t involve HR, out-sourcing, or new software

Ruh roh. Now what?

How to fix your work culture

Again, I could do 12 million words on this. I won’t. Let’s instead run through a few quick ideas.

What makes a good work culture? There is, somewhat unsurprisingly, research on this topic. One of the things that makes ‘great work culture’ rise above ‘OK work culture’ is people have opportunities for growth and new training. Sad reality: most executives hear ‘opportunities for growth’ and immediately bellow, ‘I don’t want to train my people so they leave for a competitor!’ This is classic ‘tribal leadership’ bullshit. Here’s the flip side: what if you don’t train people and they stay?

Speaking of not training people: Here’s a depressing stat. 82 percent of managers end up being the wrong hire. That’s a 8 in 10 failure rate! LOL! Here’s another stat. It typically takes 12 years for a manager to receive his/her first training. Do you see a potential correlation between A and B? I do.


Alignment of strategy and execution: Most companies totally whiff on this, but this is actually where work happens. If the strategy is set up the top dogs, but then each silo and each middle manager is telling their people “No no, do this,” that leads to a shitty work culture. No one wants to come to work every day when they’re working on no-ROI deliverables. Brief thought challenge for you: if you could make $120,000/year but came to work and did nothing of importance, would you? What if the other option was $80,000/year where you felt really good about your accomplishments? A lot of people would take the latter. When we fail to align strategy with day-to-day work, we create a bad work culture.

Priority Management: Most bosses you have screech at you that everything has “a sense of urgency.” This leads to missing your kid’s dinner or your friend’s happy hour. Why does this happen? Clueless managers is one reason, sure. Another reason is that most people at your job have no idea what the priorities even are. How can a work culture be good if no one is sure what the work really is?

The bottom line on work culture is caring

Phrased another way? Cut the BS. When you run around from meeting to meeting and call to call, that’s not really ‘being a leader.’ You need to care about people, how people relate to processes, and how people relate to the core of the work. That is being a leader. (And heck, here’s 22 other ways to be a leader.)

If you don’t care about your work culture, it won’t get better. You can only lip-service it for so long. At some point, you’ve got to actually stop and think about what it is and what it could be. It’s not on a balance sheet, it can’t be breathlessly analyzed like Q2 revenue metrics, and it might mean you need to remember who your VP of HR is. But work culture is important, and as a result, you need to care.

Thoughts on work culture and how to improve it?

Self-Promotional: I just launched a Facebook page for this blog, if you want to go like it.

Ted Bauer

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