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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:

The “Cut Support Staff” Culture Killer

If you’ve been in the workforce for more than a few years, you’ve probably noticed that non-professional support people are being cut everywhere.  Gone are secretaries, clerks, typists, along with many lab technicians, librarians, editors, researchers, graphic artists, and in-house tech support. 

In short, what’s been eliminated from your workplace (compared to that of your parents or grandparents) is overhead.  All this is done in the name of efficiency.  The unspoken rule of such efficiency programs seems to be:

Overhead is evil.

Cutting overhead is most often justified in terms of efficiency, but it’s really more about cost-reduction.  And what’s getting reduced is short-term cost.

We humans are less than perfect at trading off between short-term cost and long-term benefit.  For example, a truly superb short-term cost reduction scheme is to buy an ancient junker of a car rather than a spiffy new model with better dependability, safety and fuel efficiency.  Talk about cost-reduction: on the day of your purchase you’re spending maybe $1,000 versus the $25,000 or $30,000 a new car would cost.   On that day, you are a genuine cost-reduction hero.   Yes, but how about the next day and the days after that?  If you’re aware of the downside of buying old junker cars, you can see where this is going:

Every time support people are removed, the tasks they used to do are picked up by the people they used to do those tasks for.  Work once done by a low-paid clerk, for example, is now done by a much more highly paid scientist, doctor, manager, or engineer.  This is hardly a recipe for efficiency.   In fact, this kind of efficiency “improvement” makes the organization less efficient.  More important, it makes the organization a lot less effective.

Grapple for a moment with us over the key question here: how does an organization allow its net efficiency to be reduced by an efficiency improvement process?  Like any good detective you have to ask yourself, Cui bono?  Who benefits?  Not the organization as a whole, of course, but someone in the organization does benefit.  Cost reduced from payroll goes directly to the bottom line.  And the person whose efforts have thus padded the bottom line may well gain power and possibly a fat bonus. 

When the leader of a country sacrifices the well-being of that country to increase his power and line his purse, we call that corruption.  Let’s see this for what it is: gaining power by cutting support so that professional people have to do low-level tasks is corruption too.

If this is how an efficiency program works in your organization maybe you need an anti-corruption program.

By the way, you needn’t be alone in seeking to repair a flawed culture: The Workplace Culture LinkedIn group is a community of like-minded participants. Also take a look at our Culture at Work Youtube channel.

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

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