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3 easy ways to screw up your company culture

Posted by Chad O'Connor  April 5, 2013 11:00 AM

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Maybe you think “Those chumps over there, that will never happen to us. We’re doing great!” Well, whenever you’re done admiring your company from Hubrisville, let’s get real for a minute.

Great company culture takes time and effort to build up, but it is easy and quick to destroy. A few bad apples, a few botched messages, a few small details overlooked and suddenly your company is the sinking ship that any smart rat is trying to abandon.

Whether it’s teaching undergraduates and grad students or working with executives on internal or external communication and business strategies, I tell everyone my first goal is to prevent the critical communication missteps that will make you seem incompetent, or worse - hated! Sadly, it’s rarely that easy.

Here are 3 guaranteed ways to screw up a company culture. Don’t say nobody warned you.


1. You think your team is on a “need to know” basis. A healthy flow of communication - downward, upward, and horizontally across silos - is the only way to make sure everyone’s on the same page with priorities, key decisions, and talking points that they’ll be taking outside of the company and into their own social networks. At the very least you need to be telling your people how and why decisions were made, how it fits with company goals/values, what else was considered, what’s in it for various stakeholders as individuals, and what’s in it for the company as a whole.

2. You think you told your team once, and it was important enough that they’ll get it. Why do you think politicians bombard us with their same talking points in speeches and TV and radio ads over and over again?! They know that repetition through multiple channels is what will eventually penetrate, so consider the mix of channels you’re going to be using to get the important stuff to stick. Don’t just send your team an email when you also could have managers bring the important stuff up with staff at face-to-face meetings, put it on the intranet and newsletter, have an executive give a company-wide talk about it, or even use the power of short video messages, like Vsnap, to reinforce the main points.

3. You think just saying it to your team is the most important part. Hopefully you were smart enough to put aspects of your company culture on paper, in a handbook, and in training materials. But it’s also about how you say it. Meet your new mantra for minimizing misperceptions and miscommunications:

Brevity whenever possible; thoroughness whenever necessary; care in word choice and actions always.

Be cognizant of actions that don’t match up with the words. For instance, did you send your employees expensive or super cheap generic holiday cards at the end of last year? Via snail mail or email? And were you preaching financial austerity to your workforce all last year too? As you can see from just that small example, there are plenty of chances for mixed signals and a disconnect that could leave some employees jaded.


Creating a great company culture is not a magic formula; it’s going to be different everywhere based on the composition of your team. Just ask Marissa Mayer, who is still under scrutiny for her recent attempts to change the culture at Yahoo! But if you can avoid the mistakes I’ve noted above, then you’re well on your way to creating a company that attracts and retains great people.

Chad O’Connor is a communication consultant, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Organizational Communication and Culture at Northeastern University, and is editor of this blog. Connect with him on Twitter @chadoconnor.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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