When bad culture happens to good leaders

Craig Janssen
4 min readJul 22, 2019

Want to improve your company culture? Why don’t you put in a basketball hoop?

Institute a no door policy.

Upgrade the snacks in the break room.

Close at noon on Friday.

Create a culture handbook.

Appoint a culture director.

Put your mission statement up in the lobby.

Fill a conference room with puppies.

What? That isn’t working?

The list of advice given to leaders to improve company culture ranges from platitudes to the inane.

And while we all want to lead organizations that have great culture, sometimes we inherit a negative one. Or we step into a role where the culture is reported to be good, but we come up against a shadow culture no one acknowledges.

In any case, bad culture happens to good leaders all the time.

The culture advice we parrot isn’t working.

Business leaders are trained to take a mechanical approach when it comes to solving problems. If x, then y. In fact, the reason the advice listed above is passed around is because there is a certain logic to it. People share and re-share because it feels like it would work.

The problem is that organizations are made up of people, not mechanical parts — which makes our companies closer to biological organisms than machines.

To complicate things, people immersed in bad culture usually respond to policy the same way they respond to their doctor’s advice about diet and exercise — they just ignore it. (Or worse, mock it.)

So, if the strategies we are being handed don’t work, then what’s a good leader supposed to do about bad culture?

You are leaking culture, whether you realize it or not.

In the Harvard Business Review’s The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, the authors write, “For better and worse, culture and leadership are inextricably linked. Founders and influential leaders often set new cultures in motion and imprint values and assumptions that persist for decades. Over time an organization’s leaders can also shape culture, through both conscious and unconscious actions (sometimes with unintended consequences).”

As leaders, we tend to view ourselves outside of the culture. We take the view of the mechanic looking at the machine, forgetting we are inextricably, biologically, part of it.

Ron Martoia, in his book Morph!, shares that leaders leak whatever is inside them to the culture of their organizations — usually without awareness. If you are a leader who is stressed with busyness, you will leak a culture of stress. If you are a leader who is hard on yourself, you will leak a culture of never measuring up.

We’ve all heard people say one thing with their words, while the vibe coming from them was directly opposed to what they said. As leaders, we can be shockingly unaware of this tendency in ourselves.

Shaping what we leak takes more than self-awareness. It takes daily internal work to notice how we show up in the world, and a bit of soul searching to be honest about our tendencies, insecurities, and the places where we don’t have integrity between our thoughts, words, and actions.

You aren’t the only one leaking.

The thing about organizations, is that there are multiple people leaking all at once.

Robert Sutton, PhD in his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, writes, “The damage that assholes do to their organizations is seen in the costs of increased turnover, absenteeism, decreased commitment to work, and the distraction and impaired individual performance documented in studies of psychological abuse, bullying, and mobbing.”

If the impact of “assholes” (there really isn’t a more impactful term than the one Sutton uses) is so negative, then why do we as leaders tolerate them?

For one thing, they usually provide some profitable function that would be difficult to replace, and for another, they are typically very good at hiding from leadership. What you as a leader experience as vague leaks of condescension, blame shifting, and impatience is likely experienced by their co-workers as a flood of disparaging comments, volatile outbursts, and pernicious bullying.

And here’s the thing, you won’t know how bad it is until it gets out of control. Worse, your team thinks you see it and choose to ignore it. The leak is so obvious to them that they don’t know how you could be unaware.

Culture is an outward reflection of an internal reality.

What your team leaks as a group becomes the company culture.

If you want to improve the culture you are in, it starts with you — a focus on your internal health so that you are leaking good stuff. Once you’ve dealt with that, then take a hard look at the team to notice what others are leaking and take action if there is a dynamic that needs to be removed.

Don’t be fooled, you can’t start the other way around. It always has to begin with you.

And once that’s done?

Well, it might be fun to add a hoop and play basketball on your lunch hour.

And for sure you are going to want a conference room full of puppies.

About the author: Craig Janssen is an expert in design for spaces where thousands come together to share an experience. An international facility strategist serving architects, venue owners, and developers, Craig leads Idibri — a multidisciplinary team of technology designers, acousticians, and theatre planners. Check out Craig’s TEDx talk, Will Future Generations Want What We Build?



Craig Janssen

I help leaders navigate engagement and technology shifts. I lead the team at Idibri. More at craigjanssen.com.