Is your IT culture unhealthy? 4 warning signs

By the time you realize you have a serious IT culture problem, the situation will be hard to fix. Consider these signs your culture is starting to crack  – and how to respond
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Crack in ground, employees falling into crack

How do you know when your IT organization’s culture is starting to crack? It’s a tricky question – the very notion of culture can be elusive and hard to define. And often by the time you realize you’ve got a serious culture problem on your hands, said problem can be so far gone it’s difficult to fix. 

Luckily, though, there are a few ways to read the tea leaves, or canaries emerging from the coal mine, depending on whether you like your metaphors mystical or morbid.

Here are four signs your IT culture is showing some cracks – and thoughts on what to do as a result.

1. Vocal people have gone quiet

If people who usually complain a lot have stopped, this can feel good. But be aware that no news is bad news in this instance! If your “angelic troublemakers” (folks who raise concerns because they care deeply) have stopped agitating, it’s a sign of diminished engagement, not serenity. They’ve given up.

What to do: Seek out these quiet folks and find out what’s on their minds. You may not be able to fix everything, but find something that can be addressed – and make sure they know you did so. You want them to feel that the organization’s culture values their voice.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

2. Timelines are subtly slipping without explanation

During the recession of the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter gave a speech commonly referred to as the “malaise” speech. Carter actually never used that word – but it is a great description for things being just off, just a bit slow, without any cause you can put your finger on. 

If timelines seem to be stretching out a bit without a clear reason, an unhealthy culture may be at the root of the matter.

Is your IT organization feeling a bit of malaise? If timelines seem to be stretching out a bit without a clear reason, an unhealthy culture may be at the root of the matter. It’s not that people have fully checked out … it’s that they’ve partially checked out, which is in some ways worse. 

What to do: First, make sure the malaise is your culture, and not the broader world. We’re all moving a little slow in the COVID period. If you’ve ruled out broader factors, then dig in with a few teams and offer help – framed as “what can I do to make your lives better” not “how can I help you work faster?” Get culture right, and efficiency follows. 

3. Attrition might not be major, but when people leave they depart in "pods"

When a lot of people leave, it’s an obvious culture red flag. When a few do so, it might not feel like much – but if it’s people who are tightly linked to each other (either by work team or friendship), that’s a sign that cultural discontent is effectively being transmitted between people. 

What to do: Consistently connect the dots on attrition – and make sure your leaders know to do so as well, as they and their teams will have a better view on who works together and who’s socially associated with whom. Exit interviews should be the norm for everyone who leaves, but make sure to really dig in with folks leaving in clusters – and to ask the “what would have kept you here?” question. 

4. When leadership or stretch roles become available, no one seems to want them

Are leadership roles sitting open for months on end – not because no one’s qualified, but because no one will take the role? Are stretch assignments and innovative projects dying on the vine because there’s no team willing to take them on? If so, the implicit message people are sending is that they don’t feel like applying extra effort to the organization – a definite sign of a culture that’s starting to fracture. 

What to do: Go back to the folks who’ve refused interesting roles or assignments – and do a general pulse check. Don’t zero in on the role they turned down, as they may get defensive or offer euphemistic explanations. Instead, really engage them as to what they’re seeing, hearing, and experiencing day to day. Then probe how they might want to do more, especially in service of fixing any problems they’ve cited. Given the freedom to both articulate the issues and be part of the solution, these folks may well get activated to turn the ship on culture. 

Listening is key to it all

You’ll notice a consistent thread in the advice for all four scenarios – active listening with resulting action. This is no accident – and in fact doing so proactively is the best preventative step of all to prevent cracks in your culture from forming. It’s critical to listen both formally (remembering that pulse surveys can be as short as one question, and as frequent as daily … you’re not tied to a once a year, slow moving effort) and informally (making sure you hear a diverse array of voices – not the groupthink of an inner circle). 

And then it’s equally critical to do something with what you hear; if you don’t, people will react worse than if you’d never elicited their opinions at all. Showing that you care about the specifics of what people are experiencing is one of the best sorts of “glue” to apply to a cracking culture. 

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Melissa Swift is the U.S. Transformation Leader at Mercer, the consultancy helping redefine the world of work. In this role, Melissa is responsible for the firm’s efforts in the areas of workforce transformation, HR transformation, HR digitization, diversity equity and inclusion, and workforce analytics.