When Company Culture Goes Wrong

Published on January 17, 2020

With an average employee engagement of 15 percent globally, according to Gallup, toxic work places are everywhere. But of course your company’s engagement levels are higher – how much higher? 30 percent? 70 percent? Do you even know? In a recent article in Wired, it was highlighted that a company is about to install toilets that are uncomfortable to sit on with the goal of employees spending less time in the bathroom taking breaks. It’s not just that this idea is completely missing the mark, but it also shows how pervasive the effects of a toxic company culture can be.

One of the aspects common place in dysfunctional companies is that they monitor their people to a greater extent. But what seems to be missing from this idea is the fundamental truth that every employee is not the same and every hour spent at the office is not equally important.

A couple of years ago, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2017 was jointly awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young for their revelation about the circadian rhythm, more commonly referred to as our internal body clock. The scientists highlighted that when we live in line with our body clock, it influences our well being and behavior. So the idea that an hour for a lark (a morning person) at 9 am would be as productive for an owl (a night person) is simply not correct. Just as a lark would generally struggle with focus and performing at a high level at night, so would the owl early in the morning.

During the second industrial revolution, Henry Ford revolutionized the workplace with a 40-hour workweek and a $5-daily salary, which was significantly better than other work available at that time. What Mr. Ford struggled with was how unbearable repetitive factory work quickly became, so he addressed this head-on by reducing hours and increasing compensation and was able to decrease the turnover of his employees. The daily wage of 5 dollars per day – unheard of at the time – was a stopgap measure they implemented to keep the wheels of production turning. The work was still grueling, but the workers were able to build a life, and this proved enough to keep them there, day after day.

Culture is a way to drive behavior

In many companies, where this 9-to-5 factory model still continues, the mentality that every hour carries the same value is still very persistent. The problem, and there are many, is that most employees no longer work in a factory environment.

Both our modern work and working environment have changed, but many companies still rely on the same, outdated principles that defined the 1900’s workplace. The solution isn’t just cutting hours. It is, generally speaking, embracing, and empowering a more autonomous working environment.

Mr. Ford was revolutionary for his time. One other innovation was the conveyor belt, where one employee performs the same task over and over again instead of having a small team building a whole car together. This made the automobile affordable to the masses, and allowed for greater freedom of movement for people everywhere. But, this is not the world we live in today, and different types of innovation are needed if we are to continue improving upon the success of the past.

Today’s companies are mostly filled with knowledge workers, where the values of a company’s culture will drastically influence productivity, flow, and creativity. It’s important to remember that many companies are created to facilitate and produce complex knowledge-based work and how you feel as an employee when you enter the office will affect your performance. To illustrate, according to Gallup, highly engaged business units achieve a 10 percent increase in customer ratings and 20 percent increase in sales, resulting in a 21 percent greater profitability overall.

Cultural innovation for the modern age

Based on what I have seen during my more than 17 years of experience working with leadership and cultural design is that highly engaged employees, also referred to as high achievers, primarily value: futuristic leadership, autonomy, and mastery in the workplace. In addition to my research with clients and companies around the world, we have seen that when engaged employees feel appreciated and trusted within a culture designed to celebrate them, they perform on an exceptional level. And that, of course, positively impacts the bottom line.

So, the solution to a dysfunctional culture isn’t more monitoring, or installing toilets that make it uncomfortable to spend more than a few moments in the restroom. Rather, the solution is to actually address the core issue of why employers think these measures are necessary in the first place, especially when so many competitors are growing and thriving without them. The silver bullet to fixing an underperforming team or business isn’t a thing; it’s designing (and later scaling) a people and purpose-centric culture. From there, sustainable profit will follow, and there will be no need for extensive monitoring and the motivation-crushing, and ultimately useless, measures some companies have been implementing to combat it.

Therese Gedda is a News Columnist at Grit Daily. An award-winning entrepreneur, she is the Founder and CEO of 30minMBA. She brings over 17 years of entrepreneurial experience to her executive coaching and cultural consulting practice, where she has built proprietary frameworks proven to deliver transformative change in both fast-growth companies and large corporations. She's also an internationally sought-after Keynote Speaker on topics such as People and Purpose-Centric Company Culture, the Future of Work, and the High Achiever Mindset. Therése has been named by the Nordic 100 as one of the most influential and impactful entrepreneurs from the Nordics. Offstage, Therése has been featured in NBC News, Fortune, TNW, and CoFounder Magazine, to name a few. Therese is the recipient of the prestigious SKAPA award, given in memory of Alfred Nobel, which is awarded to leading founders. And she has inspired more than 30,000 people in over 10 countries, engaging with audiences of 5 to 5000 at conferences such as TEDx, Web Summit, and TNW, as well as invitation-only events organized by Apple and LVMH.

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