Work Culture: Positive vs. Terrible

Work culture is an integral factor in worker productivity and employee retention. In this short article, we’ll look at the evolution of work culture, why it is important, and how you can foster a positive work culture in your company.

What is work culture?

When we talk about work culture, we are talking about the overall atmosphere present in the work environment of a company. This atmosphere is intended to be an expression of the employer’s philosophy, beliefs, attitude, and behaviour as they pertain to carrying out the company’s mission.

Work culture has a lot to do with how employers and employees are expected to conduct themselves and carry out their work. A company’s work culture is defined not by a written statement of principles and priorities but by the expression of those principles in the way employers and employees interact and carry out their tasks on a daily basis.

When trying to understand a company’s work culture, we should consider the following:

  • How are the employees expected to behave towards one another? With formal adherence to a hierarchy? Or does the company favour a more casual atmosphere?
  • How are the employees expected to carry out their work? With rigid timelines, allocated spaces, and set, unwavering parameters? Or does the company favour flexibility?

Why is work culture important?

Work culture has a major impact on both employees and the company as a whole. From the employees’ perspective, work culture plays a large part in determining their health, happiness, and long-term success. It is one of the main factors in determining their level of commitment and how long they choose to stay with the company.

With a positive work culture, employees are more likely to take genuine pleasure in their work. They are imbued with a sense of pride in what they do and who they work for. A positive work culture also plays a significant role in the employees’ mental health as one of the staples of a positive work culture is the attention paid to work-life balance.

Along with inclusion, support, and attention paid to the mental and physical health of the employees, these key components of a positive work culture help to boost employee morale.

Conversely, when working in a terrible work culture, employees are more likely to feel stressed. Employees stand a greater chance of getting burned out and could even be discouraged from pursuing their professional goals. As work culture is largely centred around relationships, a terrible work culture often leads to internal strife and in-fighting.

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Employees who are subjected to a terrible work culture can find themselves getting cynical. And the stress and bad humour that comes from the toxic relationships they encounter at their place of work can easily seep into their private lives. It is not uncommon for employees who are subjected to a terrible work culture to experience a deterioration of their relationships outside of work, too.

From the company’s perspective, a positive work culture generally leads to an increase in productivity. There is truth in the old adage ‘a happy employee is a productive employee’. Additionally, a positive work culture goes a long way toward ensuring that employees stay with the company.

This is especially important in times like the present where employee retention is a major concern. Considering the abnormally high quit rate and the difficulties HR managers are having in filling open positions, it is no surprise that work culture is a major concern for business leaders.

How has work culture evolved over the decades?

The term ‘work culture’ was first coined in 1951 (then called organisational culture) by the Canadian social scientist and management consultant Dr Elliot Jacques. However, we would have to wait over two decades for the concept to gain traction in popular consciousness.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, management consults turned to the research conducted by anthropologists and sociologists to see if it could be adapted to the modern workplace. They began conducting studies of their own, and findings suggested that organisational culture could be a significant factor in one firm’s competitive advantage over another.

At this time, research into organisational culture (as the term suggests) was focused primarily on how subordinates interacted with their superiors and vice-versa. It wasn’t until the early part of the 21st century that more consideration was given to how peers interacted among themselves and how upper management could create environments that favoured more positive interactions.

It was also at this time that the term morphed from ‘organisational culture’ to ‘work culture’, thus removing the emphasis on hierarchy and placing it more soundly on work environment.

What are the signs of positive work culture?

It is important to state from the outset that there is no singular template for a positive work culture that will suit all organisations across all sectors of activity. Since companies and work organisations are collections of individuals, there is as much diversity among work cultures as there is among people. In fact, understanding the importance of diversity and not imposing one model or methodology on all individuals is one of the pillars of a positive work culture.

Therefore, instead of searching for methods that lead to a positive work culture, it may be healthier to look at what the expected outcomes of a positive work culture are and then seek methods to achieve those outcomes. These methods should be based on the specific characteristics of the people working within your organisation.

Productive employees

A positive work culture allows workers to put their individual skills to good use. They are given opportunities they excel in. And because they know their efforts will be rewarded and they believe in the positive contribution the organisation is making to the community and/or to the customers, they are eager to accomplish the tasks they’ve been assigned.


A positive work culture is one where both employers and employees recognise the value of diverse backgrounds, different methodologies and mindsets, and the unique attributes that differentiate one person from another. The recognition of the value of diversity is manifest both in the physical make-up of the personnel and in the way business is conducted on a daily basis.

High worker retention

With a positive work culture, the human resources department spends more time on continual training and promoting the professional advancement of the employees than it does on finding new employees to replace those that are leaving or have left the organisation.

Promotion from within

Organisations that have a positive work culture do not have to look outside the organisation to find employees to fill senior positions. This is because there is an abundance of existing staff that have been with the organisation for a long period of time and these employees have received ample training in preparation for such a promotion.

Open channels of communication

A positive work culture is one where employees feel their voices can be heard. They feel that they can make a valuable contribution to the work environment and that their superiors are willing to listen to their ideas. Additionally, employees are happy to receive feedback because they know that the feedback is meant to help them perform their duties better.


Organisations that have a positive work culture are ones in which employees have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, what they need to do to meet those expectations, and what steps they can take should they need additional help.

Employees in an organisation with a positive work environment do not try to blame others for mistakes or unsatisfactory performance because they feel supported. They understand their responsibilities, they take pride in carrying them out, and should they come up short they know they can receive help and not retribution when they assume their mistakes.

What are the signs of terrible work culture?

Terrible work culture is not something that can easily go unnoticed. While the effects may start off small, they will inevitably snowball. And if not detected and rectified in the early stages, these symptoms can quickly reach unmanageable proportions. Stay vigilant. And look for any of the following signs of a terrible work culture.

High employee turnover

Simply put: people do not want to work in a terrible work culture. Organisations that do not pay attention to the culture they foster will see their employees leaving at a high rate.

Quiet quitting

Though the term is relatively new, the behaviour that quiet quitting describes is not. Employees stuck within an organisation with a terrible work culture will invariably lose their interest in their job and will do little more than the bare minimum until the culture is changed or they find another job at another company.

Cliques and workplace gossip

Instead of fostering collaboration, equality, and mutual respect, a terrible work environment pits one employee against another. The end result is a factioned staff where back-stabbing and the spreading of rumours run rampant.


The online jobs portal, Lensa, mentions employee burnout as the top sign of a toxic work environment. Burnout is a frequent result of poor work-life balance. And a poor work-life balance is one of the principle contributing factors to a terrible work culture.

How can I improve my company’s work culture?

A positive work culture isn’t built overnight. That being said, it is possible to repair a damaged work culture. And if done right, it is possible to do so more quickly than you might think.

Initiate improvements at the recruitment process.

Work culture, whether we’re talking about developing or improving, begins at the recruitment process.

The recruitment process is where we can identify candidates who are likely to contribute to and not detract from the work culture. It is also where your ideas for a positive work culture can be expressed and expectations – of both employees and the employer – can be clearly defined.

Before onboarding a candidate who has successfully completed the hiring process, it is worth discussing the importance of work culture and what can be done, by both parties, to ensure a positive work culture. Some concepts to bear in mind before onboarding include:

Talk with the recruit about the various kinds of work environments they have experienced in the past. Which environments did they thrive in and why? From their answers, you can then determine whether you are in a position to accommodate their specific needs.

Make sure the channels of communication available to the recruit are clearly understood. The recruit should have a clear understanding of who they can talk to about work-related problems or suggestions for improvement and how those suggestions will be treated.

Do not try to impose a work style (or even a communication style) on the recruit. Instead, seek to identify what work style they are most comfortable with and determine whether or not that is something you can accommodate.

Empower your employees by challenging them.

Positive work culture is by no means synonymous with ‘easy work’. When an employee is not challenged that means that their skills are not being fully expressed and they are not growing professionally. That will invariably lead to complacency, boredom, and frustration.

Instead, seek to identify the unique skills your employees possess and put them in situations where they can express those skills and build on them.

Simultaneously encourage autonomy and teamwork.

This is perhaps the most challenging task of a leader – and perhaps the most important. Successfully encouraging worker autonomy while fostering a work culture of teamwork is one of the key qualities of a good manager.

Giving workers autonomy means entrusting them and offering them choices – not only on what tasks they need to accomplish but also on how they should go about accomplishing them. Autonomy allows workers to explore their strengths and identify their weaknesses. It also goes a long way toward letting them know that they are valued which is an extremely motivating sensation.

Workers who are given autonomy tend to display a noticeable increase in job performance and job satisfaction. It also empowers them to take initiative which leads to an increase in innovation and problem-solving.

However, autonomy doesn’t mean working alone. It doesn’t have to come about at the cost of teamwork. In fact, an excellent leader knows how to foster autonomy and build a positive team culture.

Teamwork isn’t about pairing workers up to accomplish tasks together. It is about creating a work environment where autonomous workers know they have support from their superiors and their peers. They are free to explore methods for carrying out their duties that are best adapted to their work style and, should they encounter difficulties, they can turn to a peer for extra support and aid.

When credit is shared and success is celebrated collectively, it is possible to create a work culture that promotes worker autonomy and teamwork simultaneously.

In Summary

Work culture is more than another buzzword. It is integral to attracting and retaining top talent and ensuring they are as productive and innovative as they can be. A positive work culture respects diversity and individual autonomy while fostering an environment of teamwork.

Building a positive work culture begins at the recruitment process. By identifying candidates who will make a positive impact on the work environment, clearly defining expectations, and maintaining open lines of communication, you’ll have the foundations of a positive work culture.

Stay vigilant. Work culture is often as fragile as it is crucial for the success of your team.

About the Author

Gergo Vari, CEO of Lensa, is a Forbes Technology Council member and a passionate entrepreneur with a focus on reinventing job searching and career development. He has a successful track record of founding and growing companies.

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Team 6Q