5 visual indicators of a suboptimal culture

by Marie-Claire Ross
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You know the feeling. You walk into a company for a meeting and something feels wrong. The receptionist is rude, staff appear flustered and the place is a mess. When you meet your client, you feel an almost palpable detachment and annoyance towards the organisation.

When you walk away, you feel relieved you don’t work there and conclude the culture must be toxic.

Your feeling is actually correct.

Culture is about how work gets done in an organisation. It’s about behaviours and habits employees have learned over time through modelling their peers.

That’s why many people report that they can tell, anecdotally, if a workplace has a great culture, just by walking inside reception and watching employees. According to social psychology, we can be very accurate with our quick behavioural judgements.

Habits and behaviours indicate how workplaces function. What behaviours leaders exhibit or tolerate become part of the company culture. As humans we are designed to want to be part of a tribe. We quickly model group behaviour in a workplace so that we fit in and become accepted.

The result is that toxic behaviours can run rampant in poorly led environments leading to low performing cultures.

Here are five indicators of a poor culture that signify disengagement:

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell discussed how in New York during the 1980s, removing graffiti magically reduced rampant crime. When there is any sign that there is a lack of care or no one is in charge, it sends a symbolic message that the system has collapsed. All it takes is one broken window, for bad behaviours to take hold.

Untidy kitchens, messy offices and hallways all flag an unhealthy culture. In fact, really messy kitchens show a total disrespect to fellow employees.

Interestingly, they also indicate a poor safety record. You’ll find that safety auditors can accurately gauge the safety record of a site office, just by seeing how tidy the kitchen is or even the state of a factory.

A couple of years ago I went to visit a client of mine that had moved to a mid-sized manufacturing company. On arrival, I accidentally walked into the factory (mistaking it for the reception). I was appalled at the condition. Equipment was all over the place and it was really filthy. Part of my shock was that I knew how passionately my client had been about safety when he was the CEO of a larger international company. When we met, I had to ask, “How’s your safety record?”

He confided, quite frustrated, that he was appalled by it, especially the disorganised, unsafe workplace.

Fast-forward six months and he’d completely overhauled safety – injuries had dropped remarkably and they were more productive and profitable. All by focusing on tidying the workplace. Now the place is spotless and employees truly know that management cares about their safety.

Tidy workplaces are a healthy indicator of a company that cares for its staff and premises. They also send a subtle message that poor behaviour isn’t tolerated.

To assess the health of a company, former US Secretary of Labor Robert B Reich developed a simple diagnostic tool. When Reich talked to employees, he listened carefully to the pronouns they used. Did staff refer to their company as ‘we’ or ‘they’?

‘They’ suggests disengagement and, at its worst, alienation. While ‘we’ suggests employees feel as if they are part of something meaningful and significant.

They’re engaged.

At a large manufacturing company I worked for, I was stunned when factory floor workers were constantly talking about ‘them’, even when they spoke about their supervisors. The criticism was pretty intense. Three weeks later they were all on strike.

Listening to the language of staff (including whether they have their own in-terms), as well as watching their body language, provides vital clues for culture.

Another visual test, particularly if the organisation has had a merger, undergone bad press or had a bad safety accident, is to have a look at the car park.

This one is easier to do over time, but tracking it regularly or asking staff about the numbers gives you a feel for the absenteeism rate, through visually checking the number of cars in the car park. When companies are experiencing a crisis, have high levels of bullying or even lack an inspiring vision, absenteeism is common.

Of course, if you do notice the number of cars have dropped, you’ll want to ask why, in case it’s quite innocent. One company I worked with always had an overflowing car park. One Friday morning I arrived, to find a car spot (a big win for me). When I enquired, it was because of an off-site staff party.

Another important visual clue is how meetings are run. Meetings reflect a company’s culture.

Signs to watch for include:

  • people don’t want to attend,
  • employees pay lip service to new initiatives, but fail to take action – false consensus is merely a tool to change the topic or not talk about it further,
  • people get shut down in meetings with leaders doing the most talking,
  • boredom (e.g. checking phones), and
  • no actions are taken at the end or a delegation of responsibilities with clear timelines.

Once I was invited to a meeting with the marketing manager in a health organisation. She had been slightly confusing over the phone about why she wanted to see me.

Since we had conversed while I exhibited at a trade show I trusted she knew what I did. So I was a bit shocked when eight different department heads were summoned to our meeting. Each person came in looking like they wanted to be elsewhere.

After a few minutes, it became apparent they didn’t know what they were there for (nor did I). A large argument ensued with everyone questioning her on why she had wasted their time. She took the easy route and blamed me. That office has now been shut down and the company has a low one-star rating out of five on Glassdoor with employees complaining about a bullying culture.

Meetings need to be purposeful. Time wasting shows a lack of an inspiring vision and poor leadership (and disrespect of other people’s time).

OK, this one probably sounds a little bit corny. But you really can evaluate a workplace culture by visually assessing people’s happiness levels.

The sound of laughter is always a good sign. So is a friendly reception or helpful employees when you enter the grounds. Oh, and also people who greet you in a warm manner during a meeting (and value your time).

You also really want to see people acting as if they know what they’re doing and appear super-focused on tasks, rather than gossiping or ignoring the phone (or each other).

Humans love being part of a group that’s going somewhere. Successful organisations maintain a cohesive group of people who love working with their peers each day and who are clear on the vision. And it shows.

The next time you visit a client or oversee a building, use these five tests to assess the culture. It’s an accurate gauge to assess whether you want to be part of an organisation.

Marie-Claire Ross is chief corporate catalyst at Corporate Culture Creator. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders create high-trust work environments. Marie-Claire can be contacted at: mc@corporateculturecreator.com.

This article also appears in the December/January issue of Facility Management magazine.

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