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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:


A pattern of anger in the workplace is about as damaging to a healthy culture as anything we can think of. 

Of course, there are sometimes policies and blunders and stupidities that would anger any reasonable person, but in those cases it’s the policies and blunders and stupidities that are hurting the culture, and the anger is simply a side-effect.

But now consider an anger that is itself the problem.  Consider the possibility of someone in power exhibiting anger because that person believes that anger can be a tool. 

But a tool of what you might ask.  Chances are your experience has already suggested one likely answer.  There is no question that an angry boss can raise the stress level for any direct report.  The short-term effect of raised stress is increased attention.  If your boss yells at you, you are going to be suddenly very much in the moment.  If that’s what the boss wants, the anger has served its purpose. 

The unspoken rule such a boss is following is:

Self-righteous anger is a good way to convey urgency.

A powerful person’s anger will get your attention for a while.  It may make you scurry out of the room, seemingly about to get cracking on whatever it is that person really wants you to get cracking on.  But the long-term effect is quite the opposite: it just makes you want to thwart anyone inclined to act like such a bully.

Remember this yourself if ever you’re about to explode in anger at a subordinate.  It may work to good effect once, but not twice.  It does you no good in the long term, and it harms the culture for everyone else.

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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Understand how to dissect the culture of your workplace as a device for improving it. YouTube
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