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Culture Smells

Everybody experiences a certain period of adaptation in a new work environment. This is not just about learning about rules and internal resources. This is also about figuring out the collective mindset and values specific to that organization, or learning the culture.

Culture is the total of non-written reactions, behaviours, mind set shared by the majority of the members of an organization.

As usual, Scott Adams has funniest remarks about culture here in Dilbert.

There are few common features of any organization culture

  1. Culture is assimilates

    When new people join, they often feel compelled to go along with the governing mind set. When everybody eats outside, the new hire who prefers eating small sandwich at his desk will have difficulties socially connecting with peers.

    Engineers coming from different development cultures will find themselves adapting to the new environment, even when they do not actually approve it. This applies to every single aspect of work. How meetings happen, what people talk about during lunch. The culture wants you to become like others.

  2. Culture is not written

    You can not find the elements that make the culture in a wiki page or hiring contract.

    You can get clues about the culture during interviews if you are careful and ask correct questions. You can dig in to the internet to find opinions of ex-employees. Finally, you can see it yourself when you are in.

  3. Things that happen due to laws and regulations are not culture

    For example, if overtime is strictly regulated in favor employees, a company that does not require frequent overtimes can not be automatically said to have a positive work-life balance culture, because it is enforced, not provided naturally.

  4. Once formed, it is extremely difficult to change the culture

    Culture is often seeded by the founders of companies. They typically don’t do it by mandating but by being an example. If founders are still in charge, you can be pretty sure that the culture is actually established by them consciously.

    For older companies, or the one’s whose founders are not around anymore, it is the result of slow evolutionary changes happened over decades when employees stay longer in it. Once it is formed, it requires strong leadership and hard, if not sometimes bloody, work to change it drastically.

    Be aware. Do not fall victim to PR fuss you see on the internet about how much an organization changed in last x years.

  5. Culture is a bully

    It is indeed like a mafia whose boss is never seen but has aggressive loyal members actively working as enforcers.

    Challenging a cultural element hits resistance. Especially if the founders are still in the management, it is almost futile to try changing the culture unless you convince them.

  6. Culture is not tangible

    Well it is obvious, right ? Furthermore it does not show up in excel reports. It does not pay any bill. It does not increase shareholder value. It is impossible to materialize but it is also so important that it can push an organization upwards or sink to the bottom.

Without exception, every single organization has its culture.

The main question is:

Do you feel happy with that culture ?

If you can not fit in, work place can become torturous. Do not do this to yourself. It never ends good and it is almost always better to cut it off as soon as possible.

Just, do not expect to change the culture of a company you are hired, unless it is very small and young or unless you are a board member.

Note that, this is neither your nor the organization’s fault. You are just not fit for each other. Accept this and move on.

But how do you identify a culture as bad ?

You need to look out for culture smells. They give you hints about a lot of stuff.

Culture Smells

My incomplete list includes smells that are more tangible, smells that come from people (well..) and smells that are more organizational (but still not by rule).

Note that, those are quite subjective. Why ?

It is the people who keep a culture living, so majority of them are already happy with it.

Therefore the conditions I describe below will not worry most of them. They are not reference for you, neither you are for them.

Coffee, Kitchen and Toilets

Those are the very first elements that show how a company values their employees in reality. Engineers spend quite a lot of time at the office, they work hard and many work overtime, some even unpaid in some places. A good brewing machine and a comfortable kitchen (or restaurant) is a good sign of employees actually being cared.

Chairs, Desks, Monitors, Direct Sun Light in the Office

Your health is your most important asset. Without it, you are nothing. Do not waste your time for a place that does not care about your health by providing ergonomic office equipment and healthy environment.

Submissively Obeying People Higher in the Hierarchy

In some places, saying no to someone or objecting an idea or request of a manager is considered unacceptable . In those places you are expected to say yes and do whatever asked. This culture is usually accompanied with regular, excess overtime.

If you get along with this and eventually get promoted, you will find yourself expecting same obedient behaviour from people you manage. Congrats, you fit in.

Brogrammer, Ninja, Rockstar or Self Proclaimed ‘Hacker’ Jungle

We have seen the rise of the brogrammer in the last decade. You will notice it by the masculinity of the environment, sexist conversations and extremely biased, rigid and often immature opinions.

Similarly, you may notice people that are completely stripped off from any humble virtues, bully others and create a poisonous environment that despise people who think different. Abundance of such people indicates that the company allows them to flourish, or even attract them.

Common Disrespect and Despise for Competitors and Outsiders

  • Do your colleagues often express disrespectful comments about your competitors ?
  • Do they consider pretty much everybody outside your organization inferior ?

Remember, the only reason you are not subjected to the same comments is that because you are one of them now.

Everybody Talks Nobody Walks or Bikeshedding Heaven

When you start getting involved in e-mail chains and meetings, you can notice this.

  • What is the ratio of bikeshedding vs actual big work completed by the people ?
  • Do you see people creating a lot of noise without actually making things happen ?
  • Do you notice groups consisting multiple middle level managers, bunch of sales people, few PowerPoint architects and a single lonely engineer trying to create a solution ?
  • Do people spend a lot time on things that can be swiftly decided and solved, while trying to stay away from big problems that require strong decisions and hard work ?

Politics are always there. But they are even more important in such places.

Resistance to New Technology Adoption

  • Do you notice people that reject every change no matter how good it is ?
  • Do they come up with ridiculous reasons while resisting ?
  • Do they bravely defend their way of working or open to experiments ?
  • Do people try to create artificial barriers to prevent even experiments ?

Sometimes this goes hand to hand with the following smell because some people consider new technology adoption is an opportunity for the other people to become “key employee”.

Personal Job Security Measures

Especially in countries where job security does not exist, employees who do not have key positions tend to come up with their own job security mechanisms to protect themselves.

This includes but not limited to information hiding, avoiding cooperation and making sure that they are the only available people for certain tasks.

You can not 100% blame them since you are not in their shoes. Nevertheless this indicates that you will have hard time doing your job properly. You might be even considered as a threat by them.

Absence of Taking Ownership

  • Do people work only when something is explicitly assigned and otherwise sit idle ?
  • Do they work on stuff without ever questioning it, regardless whether it is plain wrong or ridiculous ?
  • When work is finished, is it done in a way that barely makes the acceptance but in a most shoddy way ?
  • When people start something, do they take it to the end ? Do they try to find solutions when they are blocked ?
  • Do they prefer staying silent in meetings, reviews, architectural discussions ?

Software is a business that stands on collective results of the minds. Diversity of voices does not mean cacophony. An environment where only few people take initiatives is destined to fail against organizations whose members proactively get in to engagements.

Excelling in Excel

  • Do people focus on making up the numbers or changing the reality to make the numbers ? (eg: You need to sell 5 boxes of something and you decide to decrease the box size to make the target)
  • Are there people whose sole job is to follow progress of some items in some magical excel files ?
  • Do people have difficulty in explaining the background of numbers ?

Complexity Complex

  • Do people like overdesigned, complex solutions over simple ones, mainly because they think complex is more professional ?
  • Do you often see PowerPoint slides with tons of shiny, entangled boxes and arrows for things that could be explained much simpler ways ?
  • Do people tend to add features that nobody ask, solve problems that nobody complain, all while complaining they have so much to do with so few resources ?

E.F Schumacher famously said:

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction

Glorifying Fire Fighting

Shit sometimes happen. But is the company systematically learning from each them and fix the cause permanently ? Or do people spend their whole time putting out fires ? Is this praised and encouraged by the managers and leadership, rather than finding solutions to prevent fires ?

The situation in such environments always get worse. Fires get bigger and become more often. Overtimes, lengthy meetings increase, people burn out and turnover rate increase.

Putting out fire solves it only for that incident.

Destructive Competitiveness

Some places promote harsh competition between individuals rather than team working towards a common goal.

  • Are you guaranteed to get your bonus as long as you meet your mutually agreed goals, regardless what other people do ?
  • Are you threatened with something like a curve system ?
  • Do managers ask you to provide negative feedback about other people so that they have ammo during reviews ?

Scape Goat Hunting

Every problem can be traced back to some individual not doing the job good enough. The prime responsible is always and undeniably the CEO.

But this does not mean that you have to hunt for the individual for a punishment. Punishments neither improve nor encourage people to become better.

Punishment just spreads fear of making mistakes and this leads to paralysis

  • Are people terrified of making mistakes ?
  • Is there a peer pressure for this ? Is it considered shameful to make a bad decision ?
  • Do people feel like they have to collect everybody’s approval before taking even simple decisions ?
  • When shit happens, do people focus on not letting it splash anywhere near them, rather than solving ?

Such environments create stressful atmosphere where people are frightened to do something or take decisions in case it turns out wrong. Mistakes will happen, punishments are not the way to prevent them.

Non Existent Guidelines

A typical problem for rather small companies.

How does procurement work ? What is the travel policy ? What do you have to do to claim expenses ? How does customer support work ? How are sales offers written ? What is the pricing strategy ?

Guidelines and procedures are essential to make sure that certain repetitive flows happen exactly same way, independent from employees.

When this lacks, you often find yourself trying to figure out how even basic things are supposed to be done. Since there is no standard, everybody wastes time on similar things and mistakes that are easily avoidable happen.

Dysfunctional Meetings

  • Do you often see meetings with many people where only 2-3 people actually speak ?
  • Do you keep getting meeting requests even for the stuff you are not primarily involved ?
  • Do meetings miss a clear agenda, duration and action points ?
  • Do people often continue meetings even after the time is up ?
  • Do people skip sending meeting minutes ?
  • Are there “follow up meetings” where people just read stuff ?
  • Do people study the material before attending meetings or do people waste time by going through endless slides and explanations ?

Meetings are synchronized, blocking communication forms that should be avoided whenever possible

The only point for a meeting is to make a decision quickly for stuff that require consensus between multiple parties. Anything else often wastes valuable time of everybody involved. You should watch out how efficient and fruitful meetings are.

Unreliable Communication Channels

Effective communication is key for functioning environment.

  • How do people handle their emails and tickets ?
  • When you send email to people, can you confidently say that each recipient has read it ?
  • Are you able to get timely replies from recipients or do you have to ask it over and over ?
  • Do people react on tickets, wiki pages mentioning them or just ignore ?

Boss is First, Principles and Procedures are Second

Looks similar to not being able to say no but it is not. In this one, we see an organization that has some guidelines, principles, standards etc all defined well and followed…unless a ‘big boss’ overrules them.

A principle is not a principle if you disobey it whenever you like.

In such environments, the will of the boss is considered a divine order and no matter how much it contradicts with established ways, people are expected to apply.

Discrepancy Between Reality and Procedures

On the other corner we have procedures defined but nobody actually follows. They are just there in case somebody asks if they exist.

  • Do you see procedures that are well defined but not used at all in reality ?
  • Do you see people often not following them due to their “very exceptional” situation ?
  • Do people skip improving the procedures when they see they do not work anymore ?
  • Do you see problems due to different people each doing something in their own way, ending up different results whereas they should have end up same if they had followed the guides ?


Each and every organization has its own way of working and culture. This may or may not fit your expectations and personal preferences. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. If you think that you don’t belong somewhere, you should not wait longer to leave and find another place otherwise it may cost you not financially but also mentally or even physically.

The key here is to be able to identify things you would find uncomfortable for you as early as possible. You should remember that, just because other people are not bothered with something does not mean that you should feel alright.

Know yourself first and then carefully examine the environment you are in.