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:

Bullshit Jobs

David Graeber, an anthropologist, speculated that many people went to work each day and did nothing. That is, nothing that was of any benefit to their organization, the world or themselves; a completely empty job that had no meaningful output. Graeber ran a survey on YouGov and 37% of people in Britain responded that yes, they had such a bullshit job. A similar survey in the Netherlands resulted in 40% saying the same. Estimates for the US have been similar or even higher.

Keep in mind that the people responding were willing to say that the job that paid their salary was bullshit. It is easy to speculate that many more would not admit that their job was meaningless, even if it was: “It’s very important that I monitor the hourly usage of training room A.”

You might be thinking that this could only apply to the public sector, but no, bullshit jobs are split pretty evenly across public and private. They appear in almost all industries – it turns out that even the highest tech organizations have their share of pointless work. You must have come across people in your own experience who either do so little, or so meaningless a task, that their job qualifies as bullshit.

Personal assistants reported that they have nothing to do, but their boss tells them to look busy – he wants to keep the prestige of having two PAs. Some assistants reported that they do the real work; their boss has the bullshit job of going to lunch and attending meaningless meetings. Many bullshit jobs are in administration. Process workers on the factory floor have been systematically made more and more efficient so that most of their work is real. This indicates that contrary to the popular notion, bullshit floats upwards.

Some of the unspoken rules that might apply in such a culture:

Don’t tell anyone that their job is bullshit.

Don’t tell anyone (except David Graeber) that your job is bullshit.

Don’t point out to management that bullshit jobs exist in the organization. You might be speaking with someone who has one.

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.