Leadership Mistakes

The 5 Worst Work Culture Mistakes You Can Make

By George Dickson on November 02, 2015

Culture will always have a massive impact on your organization. A great work culture can attract and retain top employees, and customers alike. A bad work culture is about as enticing as a poison ivy bush.

Nobody wants to build a bad culture on purpose, but it's easy to make mistakes. Here are five of the worst mistakes to avoid when building a company culture:

1. Build a culture without intention

While you may recognize the value of having a positive company culture, you can't just let it happen, put it off for another day, or pick a few cultural values out of a hat.

In a Forbes article discussing his own company culture mistakes, Chris Myers from BodeTree stressed that neglecting culture is a mistake that is hard to fix — and if it "starts to go sideways, the long-term impact can be devastating." He also emphasized the importance of defining and shaping the company's culture from the beginning.

It's up to you to discover what makes your company tick and shape its culture thoughtfully from day one.

It's not just a matter of buying ping pong tables; it's a matter of determining what's important, establishing the tone and direction of your company culture, and then setting the example in every interaction and decision. It's about your actions and the behaviors you and the team will and will not tolerate.

To avoid this mistake, figure out who you are as a company, what you value, and what you will and won't tolerate — even if you're just starting out. Start living your cultural values so your team can do the same.

2. Make poor hiring decisions

Speaking of your team, building a great company culture is impossible if you keep making bad hiring decisions. For example, you may have found a brilliant candidate with the right skill set to move your company forward, but what happens if that person doesn't work well with others?

Dharmesh Shah, founder and CTO at HubSpot, calls this "seeing the ivy and missing the poison." He also says, rightly so that the "soul of your company is at stake."

In an article Shah wrote, 5 Hiring Mistakes that Can Crush Your Company's Culture, he shared what HubSpot looks for in all new hires: HEART (Humble, Effective, Adaptable, Remarkable, and Transparent). This is a good formula for making smarter hiring decisions. If your candidate has the skills you're looking for and has HEART, he or she could be a good fit.

If you had to choose between skills and cultural fit, remember this: you can train for skills, but you can't train for those inherent characteristics that define a person.

3. Accept weak core values

Core values are at the center of any company culture. BusinessDictionary.com provided a useful definition of what core values really are:

A principle that guides an organization's internal conduct as well as its relationship with the external world. Core values are usually summarized in the mission statement or in a statement of core values.

We like to think of core values as a shared set of beliefs that define who the company is and what it stands for.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make concerning your company culture is to have weak or irrelevant core values. If your core values are thoughtless carbon-copies, or poorly aligned with your company's strategic vision, they'll be perceived as meaningless and won't be embraced by the team.

You can't build a strong company culture around weak or irrelevant core values.

Ask yourself the following questions about your core values:

  • Are they really core values? If so, there should only be a handful. 
  • Are they genuine, or do they just sound good and aspirational?
  • Do they align with your organizational goals?
  • Are they easy to interpret and follow?
  • Would your team agree with all of the above?

4. Implement meaningless or arbitrary rules

Do the rules you have in place make sense? Is there a good reason for them? For example, it may (or may not) make perfect sense for some customer-facing employees to dress in professional attire, but requiring others to conform to a strict dress code may come across as unreasonable, old-fashioned, or arbitrary.

Barry Saltzman sums it up in his recent Fast Company article:

"That strict dress code or early start time may seem like an easy way to ratchet up professionalism in your workplace, but is there a good reason for it? Strict requirements that work in a law office may erode the work ethic at a hip tech startup."

Do your rules make sense in the scheme of your company culture?

If your culture is all about work/life balance, getting time off should be relatively easy, right? However, if it's impossible to get time off without providing notice well in advance, arranging for cover, providing a doctor's note, and getting two managers to sign off, there's a mismatch between the culture and your rules. 

5. Fail to be transparent

Trust and honesty are vital components of any successful company culture, and building that trust requires transparency.

If you are constantly whispering, working behind closed doors, and evasive about whatever's going on, your team may misunderstand, fear the worst, or feel shut out. When your company lacks transparency, morale, productivity, loyalty, engagement, and commitment all suffer.

If your goal is to build a secretive, suspicious company culture, then go ahead and keep everyone in the dark.

On the other hand, if your goal is to create an open, honest, and engaged culture, you'll need to be as transparent and open as possible.

In her Washington Post article, "Career Coach: The Importance of Being More Transparent at the Office," Joyce E.A. Russell explains why you should "help employees see the larger picture of what is happening in the organization," and why transparency is such a crucial element of effective leadership and culture

Building a thoughtful, engaging company culture that accurately reflects who your company is and what it's all about isn't easy, but the returns on that investment can be enormous.

By avoiding these five mistakes, you can be sure you're on the right path.

If you're ready to take your culture to the next level, check out our latest guide:

Download the Motivation Manual

Written by George Dickson

George Dickson

George manages content and community at Bonusly. He's dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures through thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition.