How to Create a Dysfunctional Culture Where Employees & Customers Are Unhappy


On this blog, I write a lot about how to create a “Lean” culture where employees and customers are happy. Engaged employees lead to happy customers — and sustainable business success.

It's often instructive, however, to see or hear about a broken and dysfunctional culture. Sometimes the clearest examples of WHAT to do come from looking at what NOT to do. That's one reason why the first year of my stint at GM was so helpful to me, even if it was really frustrating (as I've written about here, here, here, and here). When you see the results of a BAD culture, it drives you to help create GOOD cultures. That's what motivates me.

But let's think about an typical bad company culture. Like a Dilbert cartoon, it could be about any company or combination of companies. None of it is made up or theoretical. Things like this happen in organizations. It makes you shudder. Shows like Kitchen Nightmares and Bar Rescue are also very instructive in these “best bad practices.”

What follows is a tongue in cheek guide for creating a dysfunctional culture and business failure.  Most of these tips would apply to a local “store manager” or “branch manager” of a business. I don't recommend you follow this path. I'm incredibly fortunate to NOT be working in an environment like this now, although I have in the past. I've spoken with many people who DO work in this type of environment.

How to Create that Broken Culture

Insist on being “the boss,” who's infallible and cannot be question. The boss is always right and must be listened to, or else.

Make alliances with some employees and make it clear you will protect them if they are loyal to you. Openly play favorites and let your favorites get away with things that you'd punish other employees for.

Hire young, inexperienced employees who you can manipulate, people who are happy to have a job and will see you as some sort of parent figure who they must be loyal to.

Encourage those “loyal” employees to spy on the other employees and give you reports on things you can use against them.

Tell the most loyoal employees that you are “out to get” some of the other employees and that you are working to get them fired.

Fire the first employee who dares to even slightly question what you're telling them to do. You want employees who do what they're told.

Fire the first employee who has too many ideas about how things should be better. Label them as difficult or insubordinate.

Have an employee train somebody new for how to do their job, then fire the person who did the training.

After you're fired some of those employees, be sure to bad mouth them to customers. Accuse the fired employee of something like stealing.

Tell them you want their input… then brutally ignore it when they give input (this is also a great way to get “troublemakers” to identify themselves).

Make sure your employees know they can't do anything other than basic tasks without checking with the boss for permission.

Ensure the employees don't have all of the tools and supplies they need to do their jobs. If they complain about this, label them as insubordinate.

When things go wrong, blame the employees. Always.

Never ask customers if they are satisfied or if they have any feedback or ideas. If you must ask for feedback, send a confusing and badly designed survey. Don't share any of those results or plans for improvement with customers (because there are no plans for improvement).

If customers complain about service or the product:

  • Ignore their feedback
  • Argue with the customers about what they are saying
  • Lie to the customers about what you had told them before
  • Tell them they are complaining too much and some people will just never be happy
  • Tell the customers they won't get better service anyplace else, anyway

Then, badmouth those customers to employees (not the ones you have aligned yourself with). Remind everybody that the customer is the problem.

Take any feedback personally. VERY personally. If somebody criticizes the process or the product, internalize it and react as if they've just compared you to Hitler.

Make changes to policies and services without talking to your customers. The more insignificant and more arbitrary the changes the better, as this keeps your customers off guard.

Tell your employees to lie to the customers about problems, defects, or delays.

If an employee talks with a customer without you being there, be sure to confront the employee when they come to work the next day and ask them what they talked to the customer about.

Don't tell employees about how to reach more senior leaders beyond their local manager. Don't give them an employee handbook that includes information about the anonymous tip line they are supposed to be able to complain about ethical concerns.

Never do any anonymous employee surveys that would allow them to give honest feedback or raise concerns.

Spend most of your time telling your senior leaders who aren't on site that everything is fine and that there are no problems and there's especially not anything you need help with.

Don't ask for management or leadership training, as that would indicate you are weak. Remember, you already know everything.

When employees speak up with concerns, ignore them or threaten them with termination (this is especially helpful when you've made it clear through the rumor mill that you're “out to get” them).

Have a senior leader come visit to ask employees how things are going and if they like working for their boss. If you've properly intimidated your employees into not speaking up, they'll tell the visiting senior leader that everything is fine. That reinforces your communication that things are fine.

Never have overall site team meetings. Hold meetings rarely with individual departments. Discourage employees from different areas or roles from talking with each other. Discourage employees from speaking freely to each other at all.

Special tips for senior leaders:

Rarely, if ever, visit the locations.

Do your best to isolate yourself from customers and front-line employees.

Base your decisions on how location sites or branches are operating on emailed reports, spreadsheets, and what the local managers tell you.

If a customer or an employee DOES somehow get to you, continually remind them that you value their honest input, even though you don't.

Remind front-line employees that they can speak up freely (but then use anything they say against them). Even if you don't get any details, assume the employees who try to speak up are, by default, troublemakers who need to be removed.

I think that's a pretty good list. What else would you add for “how to create a dysfunctional culture?”

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Sadly, if you skipped the title and introduction, you could mistake this as a factual overview piece on modern business dynamics.

    I’d add: “Remember, employees are just another expense on the balance sheet. Therefore, logic says the fewer and the cheaper, the better.”

  2. Another good LinkedIn comment:

    This is a pretty large topic for a simple comment. but, I would start, #1 failure to communicate/communicate dishonestly with front line staff ( see layers of hierarchy mentioned above), #2 have no clear direction for employees, or throw them “under the bus” when things go awry. # 3 ignore problems and take action on little to nothing with refusal to accept personal accountability for your actions or lack of actions, ( see blame others) above….others will add to this I’m sure as this goes on. There are lots of ways to get this wrong, and its difficult to get it right, definitely.

  3. My adds:

    Expect everyone but senior management to change because the problem isn’t at the senior management level.

    Develop scorecards to assess how well eveybody but senior leadership is doing on lean.

    Incapability of recognizing leadership mistakes and worse yet, when mistakes are made, respond by just hitting the nail harder.

    Fail to provide a reason why. The reason to be lean isn’t to be lean.

    Fail to bring someone in from the outside that will give a brutally candid assessment of leadership’s shortcomings.

    Failure to learn from mistakes.

    Spending too much time thinking that shortcuts will work.

    Thinking that Lean is just a better way to tell employees what to do.

    Thinking that Lean is a failure when it doesn’t produce short-term wins.

    Add Lean as another management system to the existing managment system without taking anything away.

    Just a few….. Some leaders simply can’t make the jump and are better off not even trying.

  4. More from LinkedIn:

    Like reading a page out of a horror novel. I have seen these tactics one too many times. Companies who struggle on the street should follow your blogs, Mark. I would connect some of their financial stagnation to how their employees are treated.


    A lot of these are common behaviors of psychopaths (shudder). But this one drives me crazy: “Fire the first employee who has too many ideas about how things should be better. Label them as difficult or insubordinate.” Er…you hired people to run an improvement program and now you’re angry that they’re improving things? (Yes, I’ve seen this happen.) It’s as if they’re angry that they were proven wrong about their pet theory (usually the “It’s Those Bad Workers” theory).

  5. Very clever presentation of thoughts Mark. If you would read it and then understand the ideas you will be surprised that the title itself should not supposed to be that way. It’s like, “Okay read my post, implement what you learned and watch your company fall apart.”

  6. Then there is of course spend lots of money on external consultants to come up with Values without properly consulting your staff, have posters of them printed everywhere, expect total adherance to them but roundly ignore them yourself.

  7. 1. Make sure all change has to be initiated and approved from the top.
    2. Set policies that benefit favored departments and inconvenience customers.
    3. Money follows power, not customer needs.
    4. Employees closest to the customer have the least power.


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