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Resignations, poor productivity, customers going elsewhere. These are all red flags for the same issue – problems in an organisation’s culture. So what can you do about it?

Over the last five years at Amplify HR we’ve worked with dozens of organisations of 10 to 100 employees. Sometimes we’re engaged for one reason: the owner is frustrated that good people are leaving the business. They’re blindsided by resignations, projects don’t seem to be getting off the ground like they used to, and customers are becoming harder to retain or harder to find. 

These are all signs that something is wrong with an organisation’s culture.

What Causes a Toxic Company Culture?

No one plans to have a poor organisational culture, and most understand the value of having a strong positive culture, so how do organisations end up in this pickle? 

The answer is that sometimes things just slide into dysfunction. Culture evolves and changes, it’s not fixed. Many business owners have said to me ‘we’ve always had a great culture, I just don’t know what happened’.

Many business owners have said to me “we’ve always had a great culture, I just don’t know what happened.

Five Monkeys 

To understand this evolution, let’s look at a story that’s often used to explain behaviour. If you like it, you’ll find lots of different versions in places like YouTube. Here’s my version.

A researcher puts five monkeys in a cage with a ladder, and at the top of the ladder he hangs a bunch of bananas. Each time a monkey goes up the ladder to get a banana, it is squirted with water at the top. Monkeys don’t like that at all, so soon all the monkeys learn not to go up the ladder

The researcher then removes one monkey from the cage and replaces it with a new monkey. The new monkey immediately tries to go up the ladder, but the other four monkeys drag it back down and punish it for trying to go up the ladder. 

Now, the new monkey doesn’t know about the water. And it doesn’t know that the other four monkeys are trying to protect it. All it knows is that it’s going to be punished if it tries to go up the ladder. 

One by one, the researcher removes all the monkeys and replaces them with new monkeys. And the same thing happens, even when all the monkeys have been replaced and none have ever been up the ladder. None of them even try, because they have learned that it’s bad.

This story may be apocryphal, my own research suggests that the experiment probably never happened. But it continues to be told and it resonates because we’ve all seen this happen in the workplace. 

The Way We Do Things Around Here

Unfortunately I’ve come across many organisations that have found themselves in a metaphorical monkey cage. People leave the organisation, but the culture remains. Everyone thinks the toxic culture was due to this person, or that person. But when the person leaves, the culture is still dysfunctional. 

And because these things are almost invisible, it’s not easy to articulate what they are. Culture is sometimes described as ‘the way we do things around here’. It’s made up of a set of behaviours, actions, inactions, values and shared beliefs. If we believe that we’ll be punished for climbing the ladder, then that becomes our culture. 

How to Address a Toxic Culture

As you can see, culture change is really slow, and it’s not always noticeable until there’s an issue. And, of course, prevention is always better than cure. So the way to address culture is to keep it on the radar and manage it with intention. 

Just as you regularly review the products and services you offer to customers to make sure they’re relevant, you must regularly review the work environment you’re offering to your employees. 

Feedback Loops

This starts with what I’m going to call feedback loops. It’s a three-step process of 

  1. Listening
  2. Receiving feedback
  3. Acting upon it. 

The only way to know what is happening in our culture is to listen. If you’re an owner or leader in the business, you’re going to have your own perceptions. And they’re not always going to be an accurate read on what’s actually happening in the organisation. Unfortunately having a senior role in a business means that people aren’t always honest with you

As much as you would like to think that you’re open, or you have an open-door policy, you can’t get around the hierarchical power difference. People won’t always say exactly what’s going on, or feel able to be completely honest, no matter how good their relationship is with their manager. 

So we need to look at different listening processes, some of which I’ve set out below. And these processes also make sure that we’re listening. Because often when we think we are communicating, what we’re really doing is speaking. Communicating is not just speaking, it’s also listening. 

One-Page Communication Plan

The first step to take is to document your listening processes in an internal communications plan. This can be very simple, don’t be scared off by the term ‘plan’. I’m not talking about a very detailed and complicated comms plan. For small organisations, it really should just be a one-pager that says ‘this is how we plan to communicate over the year’. 

The communications plan will set milestones for listening and communicating information, receiving feedback and acting upon it. Because it’s very important to continue the momentum into action to create a really great culture. If people don’t feel they’re being listened to, they’ll just stop communicating. 

Engagement Satisfaction Surveys

A great way of listening is with engagement satisfaction surveys with your staff. I talked about these in another post. I highly encourage you to run these surveys at least once a year. And feeding back the results at the end of that survey is just as important as doing the survey. 

Here are the steps:

  1. Thank people for giving you the information
  2. When the results are consolidated, give them a picture of the results. 
  3. Let them know the actions you’re taking in response
  4. Each quarter, communicate how you’re tracking on completing the actions

First Impressions Surveys

Another great idea is a first impressions survey. When someone has been with your business for about three months, send them a survey to ask for feedback on their first impressions. 

Next, you consolidate the information and share it with your team. How often you share it will depend on the size of your organisation. Maybe it’s each quarter, maybe it’s only once a year. If you only have one new employee per quarter, it’s going to be awkward for that person if you’re sharing the information with everybody. But if you have your three, four or five responses, you can provide the results to your teams. 

These surveys offer huge insights into why people are joining your business, the value they perceive when they come on board and the areas you may still need to work on. And it’s very useful to see how this data matches or doesn’t match with the feedback you receive from the engagement survey.


Another thing that you can do is to hold roundtables, depending on the size of your organisation. A roundtable is where a senior leader, or the owner of the business, has a discussion with a random selection of employees who they would not normally come across in the course of their work. It’s an opportunity to ask open questions about the workplace. 

You can hold these every second month, every quarter, every six months, or whatever you decide. Next, you look at the information coming from the roundtables and find the themes that emerge. Again, communicating your learnings back to your team is critical. 

As with engagement satisfaction surveys, you need to give them a picture of the value that you received from the discussion, explain how you’re going to use the information, and then provide updates on the actions you’re taking

Communication and Culture

Not only do feedback loops allow you to take the pulse of your workplace, but they also strengthen your culture, because your people will see that transparency and communication are really important and valued in your business.

Conversely, if you aren’t providing feedback or acting on the information you’ve gained about your workplace culture, it can cause disgruntlement. People think, ‘well, what’s the point?’ And as new employees join, people will pass those sentiments on. They’ll say ‘don’t bother with that first impressions survey, or ‘don’t worry about doing that engagement survey because nothing ever happens’. And before you know it, you have a ladder in your monkey cage.

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