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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:

Bureaucracy is its Own Reward

A recent change in regulations governing French copropriété (the legal entity that administers a collective of separately owned properties such as a condominium) means that every copropriété must fill out and submit a complicated and time-consuming form each year. The French Republic has existed for quite a long time and has not seen any need for an annual form to be filled in. But now it says it has a need.

Why should this be so? There has been no significant change in the real-estate world or market to justify the new document. No, this is the work of the bureaucracy, in this case it is the French Civil Service (Fonction Publique Française) — the huge, cumbersome and opaque bureaucracy that carries out the government’s business.

The French annual copropriété form happened because someone in the vast empire of the Civil Service (the word “civil” is used from its origin of relating to ordinary citizens; it should not be mistaken as meaning polite) wanted to expand a little, and make more work, so voila!, tens of thousands of copropriété forms being filled out all over France, and hundreds more civil servants needed to process them.

Bureaucracies love to grow, which they do by creating more (sometimes completely unnecessary) work. For many of the people in a bureaucracy, the ultimate goal of their work is not to get product out the door or provide a service, but to make more work. As the work they know is bureaucracy work, they make more of that.

The same kinds of bureaucracy exist in many private companies, usually larger organizations, and parts of them that have become so far removed from the prime service or product that they have, for all intents and purposes, lost sight of the organization’s reason for existence. For most of the people in it, the bureaucracy is their universe, so understandably they desire to make it larger and more complex. Both result in more bureaucratic or administrative work:

“Let’s start monitoring the percentage of parking spaces being used by the hour.”

In addition to more work, we have the bureaucrat’s favorite extra, benefit, it makes the administration more complicated:

 “We can have everyone eating in the canteen fill in out a food allergy card, add a bar code to that, and if they go near a dish on the buffet that has their allergy, sound an alarm. Of course, the cards will have to be renewed each month.”

Any additional work is good for the bureaucracy.

Bureaucratic overreach reveals an unfortunately prevalent unspoken rule:

Never make anything simple when an unnecessarily complicated alternative can be constructed.

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:


Neue und erweiterte Auflage 2 jetzt verfügbar. Adrenalin-Junkies und Formular-Zombies: Typisches Verhalten in Projekten. Hardback

How workplace culture affects workplace performance:  We know they’re linked, but now we know a bit more about how and why: Article by Suzanne and James Robertson in Modern Analyst.

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.