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Culture Gone Wrong: Cleaning the Cult Out of Your Culture

Sometimes an unhealthy company culture is obvious. In other situations, it can be more ambiguous, like the startup that thrives on beer on tap and inside jokes and wonders why its diversity recruiting efforts fail, or the established marketing firm that only recruits at universities and wonders why its age demographics skew young.

Whether it’s clear as day or a silent epidemic, unhealthy company culture can be costly. So what can you do to make sure the time and resources you invest go towards building a company culture and not a company cult?

Here are four helpful tips from Vanessa Shaw, the culture consultant and learning designer behind The Human Side of Tech.

Tip #1: Consider the Roots of Culture

Company culture may hold buzzword status in HR headlines nowadays, but it has deep, scholarly roots in anthropology. If you want to understand what separates a cult from a culture, it’s worth exploring those roots.

“Even though they’re practically identical processes, we’ve taken anthropology out of organizational design,” says Shaw. “We try to simplify culture into answering questions like, ‘Who do we put in one chair?’ and ‘How do we change the org chart?’ But this is a missed opportunity in the dialogue.”

“A better definition of culture borrows from anthropology to address the collective beliefs, experiences, behaviors and rituals of a group of people,” says Shaw. “A cult is just rituals and controlling behavior. A culture is a value system by which we judge the world around us. It encompasses how we define good or bad, right or wrong, pretty or ugly, admirable or disgraceful, successful or not.”

Tip #2: Take the Whole Picture into Account

One challenge in the company culture dialogue is that there are so many definitions of the term. But Shaw points out that it’s not that all of these competing definitions are incorrect, it’s that they’re all correct — they just can’t stand alone because they only take into account one or two slices of the whole pie. Deeply understanding culture requires an HR professional to consider all the different pieces of the pie.

“Over Focusing on one slice of the ‘company culture pie’ isn’t an effective way to build culture,” says Shaw. “Organizational design and organizational psychology is one slice, anthropology is another. The same for group dynamics and belief systems. We can’t deepen our knowledge and effectiveness if we keep culture separated into different factions.”

[Related: 17 Ways Southwest Created a Great Company Culture]

Tip #3: Look Out for Signs of an Unhealthy Culture

Shaw defines a healthy company culture as one defined at the top but spread through the organization as a conversation, that has rituals that recognize behaviors it wants to encourage and that acknowledges and integrates feedback when appropriate. For example, workplace rituals may include daily standup meetings and annual performance reviews, or even celebrations like birthdays, Labor Day or Veteran’s Day.

An unhealthy culture may exhibit the following signs:

  • Inaccessible sense of humor. “When you have an environment of inside jokes and humor, this can be a warning sign that there is very exclusionary behavior happening.”
  • A lack of diversity. “Reduced numbers in diversity is a strong indication that your culture is growing cult-like.”
  • Poor reviews on social media. “When people don’t feel they have a voice, they turn to social media. Monitor Glassdoor reviews, Twitter, Facebook and more.”
  • Referring to your company as a “family.” “This is a dysfunctional way of thinking about work. It’s especially damaging to startups, which can’t maintain family-like structures as the company grows. Your organization should focus on building a community, not necessarily a family.”

[Related: Culture Fit or Culture Add? How to Hire Employees Who Enhance Your Culture]

Tip #4: Align Your Culture Initiatives With Your Deeper Values

Too often, companies without enough HR support approach culture as a series of events. But the culture initiatives you plan need to be more than a list of ways to encourage team-building — if you want them to build culture, they need to be consistent with your company’s deeper values.

“Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding that culture is only in one department and only superficial — it’s HR programs, office parties and annual events,” says Shaw. “But that’s only part of the story. There’s the side of culture that you can use your senses for — things you can see, smell, taste and hear — but also values under the surface of those initiatives that hold them up and give them meaning and value.”

Company culture is a leading headline in the HR space for good reason: companies with a strong culture report better performance and productivity and higher employee engagement and retention. As you assess and intentionally grow your company culture, make an effort to be sure you’re designing initiatives that contribute to a true culture, not a cult.

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