By: | government data servicesCC BY 2.0


Many companies are broken – some deeply.

Yet, many remain profitable – thanks to the evil of ‘maximising shareholder value’ – profits roll in, souls and joy roll out. Others busy themselves with the structural preoccupations of ‘a real business’ – plush offices, sophisticated internal systems and fancy titles. All these add to the illusion that they are not broken.

What is a broken company?

By ‘broken’ I mean there is an abundance of stuff that needs fixing – from communication to the coffee machine and no one is fixing them because they are too busy or they don’t care or both.

Whilst many types of things might be broken, the most critical are the key foundations of human relationships – openness and trust. In broken companies there may be many  people who are disengaged from the wider organisation and feeling disempowered  – though they might excel at the function they were hired for. Broken companies often have processes and procedures that choke deep, meaningful human communication and become increasingly human-unfriendly places to be.

Getting things done in a broken company is like having teeth pulled – painful. People devise workarounds for getting stuff purchased, create defense mechanisms around power-hungry, psychopathic managers, play silly political games to get ahead because that is how the systems seems to work. Others might get by simply by keeping their heads down and hoping for the best.  For others still, there is so much BS that they simply give up and go some place else.

Another aspect of a broken company is the absence of a clear plan for how things get better. Some broken companies attempt to fix themselves by creating a role to be responsible for fixing things for everyone and surround themselves with even more process. This creates an illusion of doing something which is often as problematic as being broken in the first place.

Things will break – sales will sell something we don’t yet have and we will be late at delivering it, servers will fail, suppliers will let us down and colleague we work with will – at some point – not live up to the expectations we have of them. A broken company is not simply a place with things that don’t work. A broken company is a place that is incapable of openly acknowledging and fixing them.

How does a company get broken in the first place

I don’t believe anything starts off broken.

I’ve been involved with companies of all shapes and sizes and I love asking how they got started. If you go back far enough, almost every company was started by people who wanted to make things better – for themselves and others. They saw an opportunity and they provided something – a product or a service – to exploit it. Then they scaled by hiring more people and creating more layers without real thought of how it might evolve.

From my observations I think that as people join a group, they bring with them a culture – ideas, behaviours, experiences, and attitudes – that gets mixed in with the cultures of the people in the existing group and something new emerges. Similar biases are likely to get stronger and groupthink becomes more likely. Ultimately, depending on what the dominant biases are – being closed vs openness , choosing to blame and punish vs collaboratively learning from mistakes and seeking solutions together – certain behaviours will become dominant that that lead companies to or prevent them from being broken.

Incidentally, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a corporate culture. I think each person operates on their own culture – their own set of internal beliefs, ideas and behaviours – which may  all be hugely influenced by the widely held ideas and behaviours. But fundamentally people choose how they behave.

As things don’t work as expected – the dominant behaviours tend to be blame and finger-pointing that sets off a chain of events that results in everyone learning that failure is unacceptable and will be punished. Trust between people is usually the first casualty – at which point it really doesn’t matter what breaks, resolving it becomes very difficult to do. What most companies then do is get policies and grievance procedures in place – as though those will somehow magically restore trust and openness.

From this point on, things still break  – as they always do – but no one cares enough to fix them and the company becomes broken.

So, is your company broken?

Look around where you work and consider these questions to help you figure out if your company is broken.

  • What are the relationships based on? Contract or collaboration?
  • How healthy is the communication? Is it free, open and honest or narrow and defensive
  • To what extent do  you trust the people you work with and how much do they trust you – ask colleagues if you can (and if not, consider the previous point)
  • What is the general level of trust in the company – think of examples.
  • What are the dominant behaviours when stuff  – really important stuff – breaks?

I would love to hear from you – anonymously if necessary – about your experiences of working in companies that you consider broken. Please consider commenting on this post or we can chat about it over twitter.

Why I wrote this

I care that people find joy in their lives and work plays a huge part in most people’s lives.

I wrote this because without acknowledging that some companies are broken and represent an unhealthy places to work, we cannot get to the conversation about improving them and we cannot begin to open the invitation to the very people who can help improve them.

I wrote this because someone may have been silently suffering and enduring an experience that they have felt unable to share and this post gives them a voice. I know I have met people who have been scarred by working in broken companies and not been able to share their feeling.

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