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Workplace Culture: This Week’s Culture Killer

Culture KillerA culture killer is what ruins workplace culture in spite of your every effort.  When we were researching our new book, Happy to Work Here: understanding and improving the culture at work, we came to the conclusion that some toxic cultural behavior was the result of people adhering to certain unspoken rules. These rules are unspoken because they are, frankly, unspeakable. But despite the fact that you never hear anybody say them out loud, they can do considerable damage to your workplace culture.  it’s  these unspeakable unspoken rules that we refer to as “culture killers.”

Over the next few months we’ll be publishing here some of the culture killers from our book plus some additional one we’ve discovered since.  Come back here for a new culture killer every week.

The toxic rules and govern an organization can be fatal to healthy culture, but they are, paradoxially, some of the easiest things to fix. Each one is a clear indicator of actionable culture improvement. Once you identify a toxic, unspoken rule, repealing it can be as simple as bringing it into the light of day. When you say the rule out loud, the damage it can do will be readily apparent, as will the work needed to make it go away.

This week’s Unspoken Rule is the one that enables:


In a work context, the word “politics” usually refers to activities that have little to do with effective operation of business processes or getting product out the door, but a lot to do with the enhancement of an individual’s perceived importance. It can also mean that person A is trying to score political points over person B, or make person B look bad. It can also mean that person C is trying to enlarge his or her sphere of influence or increase the number of subordinates.

You probably have other meanings for the word, depending your experience of politics in the workplace. Whatever meaning you attach to “politics”, none of them will have anything to do with improving the organization, its effectiveness or its products.

Unfortunately, politics can play a role in almost any company. Unfortunately, because such politics are rarely beneficial, and for some bizarre reason, the intensity of the politicking is often in inverse proportion to the importance of the issue. Which brings us to our unspoken rule:

Political advantage is more important than getting useful stuff done

The saddest thing about this perception of politics is that the word Politics has a noble derivation: It was coined by Aristotle to describe a set of admirable skills that enable us to form an ethical and supportive society. Since we now use the word almost exclusively to imply sleaziness, we have no word for what Aristotle called one of the five major branches of Philosophy: Metaphysics, Logic, Ethics, Politics and Aesthetics. I’ve been fortunate in my work life to know admirable politicians in the Aristotelian sense: men and women who designed and implemented marvelous feel-good cultures.

You must have a story or two about the cultures, good and bad, that you’ve encountered, either in your present work or in your past.  Have you been fortunate enough to see wonderful workplace culture in action, and to what do you attribute it?  Or do have an unspoken rule damaging your culture?  If so, what do you suppose was its cause? Tell us about it:


Happy to Work Here. A practical guide to understanding and improving your workplace culture. Available in paperback and Kindle.

The German edition of Happy to Work Here: Betriebsklima verstehen und verbessern has been published by Hanser. Hardback at

Two coauthors reflect on some of the unexpected implications that a reader may detect in what they’ve written. YouTube
See Tom DeMarco squirm as a rough critic trashes his most recent work.  YouTube
Tom DeMarco gives away one of the secrets of the new book, Happy to Work Here. YouTube
Understand how to dissect the culture of your workplace as a device for improving it. YouTube
What happens when you challenge cultural norms? YouTube
A video about our new book Business Analysis Agility – solve the real problem, deliver the right solution.  Amazon  YouTube

Suzanne and James Robertson’s Requirements: The Masterclass LiveLessons-Traditional, Agile, Outsourcing. 15+ Hours of Video Instruction

Tom DeMarco’s 2018 sci-fi novel, The One-Way Time Traveler, now available in paperback and ebook. It’s a Handmaid’s Tale in reverse: Welcome to a world where women have all the power.

A Ruby Beam of Light, Book I of Tom DeMarco’s Dark World Chronicles saga is now reissued in a new edition.
“This war isn’t going to blow anything up, only turn everything off.
James Robertson’s webinar for Software Education explains how agile stories are best used to ensure the right solution. Download the webinar slides.