What does “bad culture” mean?

One of the things we’ve learned through the years is that bad culture and good culture can mean different things. It’s somewhat subjective, in that what might be a good culture for one organization might not be for another depending on the workforce and the types of personalities involved.

Working toward clarity and alignment

Instead, we try to steer the conversation toward language about clarity and alignment. To me, when most people are thinking about a strong culture or a good culture, what they’re really saying is “it’s a culture where everyone clearly understands their position and the mission of the organization, and is aligned around a purpose. They feel confident in the direction their organization is headed toward, and they feel comfortable working together to achieve common goals.”

When I think about a less-effective culture, what I think about is uncertainty and ambiguity in an environment. In this context, there is a risk for behavior that ultimately become unethical or inappropriate because the organization hasn’t created the proper boundaries.

Building a healthy framework of core boundaries

When I think of culture, particularly about vision, strategy, and values, I think about those as creating boundaries in which you and your workforce are able to bring their creativity and their ambition into the organization. But you are able to do so within the framework of the organization’s future.

If your boundaries are clear, you establish a lot of freedom to work within them. When those boundaries are unclear, what is acceptable or unacceptable becomes difficult to sort out. In most cases, that means there’s potential for bad behavior to goes unchecked. In worst case scenarios, that can even lead to unethical, exceptionally bad behavior.

In other words, while bad culture doesn’t necessarily create bad ethics, it can enable them by removing, or failing to establish, the proper safeguards within the organization.

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