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The Silent Killer of Organizational Culture

The Silent Killer of Organizational Culture

Cultural Monoxide is the silent killer of organizational culture.  This is not a scientific phenomenon, just a looming threat to our abilities to build quality culture in the workplace.  It will suffocate and interrupt the heartbeat of who we are as an organization.   

What is Carbon Monoxide?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines its counterpart in the science world as carbon monoxide, “an odorless gas that can kill you.”  Pretty straightforward…right?  Science isn’t my strong suit, but I do know that it is a dangerous fume generated from burning gas.  If the toxic fumes are not ventilated properly, the results can be deadly. 

What is Cultural Monoxide?

The same is true for an organization.  If the toxic fumes within an organization’s culture are not ventilated properly, it can produce deadly levels of cultural monoxide.  The toxic fumes left undetected can flat out kill organizational culture. 

What is Culture?

Organizational culture can be summed up by the way your team feels when they come to work. The behaviors, the attitudes, the beliefs, and sometimes jus the simple feel of the workplace. Culture is everything to an organization. Peter Drucker said that, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

In order to combat cultural monoxide, we need to know these four things: 

Proper Venting

Let us use a house as an example.  Most houses have at least one furnace that is operated off of gas that provides heat during the winter.  In my house, the furnace is in the basement.  There is a vent that runs from the unit to the roof where.  The vent carries the deadly fumes to open air.  From there, the fumes are no longer a hazard to our family’s health.

Toxic gases need to be ventilated properly. They need to vent up. When people get sick or die from CO poisoning it is because the system failed. There was a fitting loose, a hole in the ductwork, or the furnace was not functioning properly. Whatever the malfunction, the fumes are pushed out laterally through the house rather than ventilated vertically to open air. 

People find it easier to vent laterally rather than taking their problems vertically to those who can solve them. There are very few circumstances where venting to a co-worker is healthy. The toxic part is when our griping, our discontent, and our disagreement is about others in the organization.

Leaders must build cultures where there is a conduit for proper venting.  If the pipe gets clogged, the fumes leak out, causing irreversible damage in some instances.     

Sound the Alarm

Unless they are hardwired in, most CO detectors need regular battery changes.  The batteries allow a signal to be sent that something is wrong.  When CO alarms detect the toxic fumes, they sound an alarm.  They are far from silent, in fact quite loud.  They continue to sound off until the air is clear. 

Ever had a peer that continually vents to you?  Just remember this. Your failure to sound the alarm, your silence, is inherent agreement with EVERYTHING they are saying. Do both of you a favor and offer to go to leadership together to share their concerns. Let them know if they do not, you will. Your decision to do this, or not to, develops culture, every time. 

Recognize the Symptoms

In addition to the definition, the CDC lists the most common symptoms on their website.  Symptoms include, “headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion.”  The symptoms lead to the poisoning of one’s body.   

An organization with a toxic culture can experience similar symptoms. Stress and anxiety created by a negative work environment can cause the poisoning. The CDC goes on to say, “People…can die from CO poisoning before they have symptoms.” Leaders that are out of touch with the pulse of their organization may not see the symptoms until it is too late for treatment, leading to the death of organizational culture.

Just like in the medical world, recognition of the symptoms allows for a prescription for treatment to be developed.  The longer the symptoms exist, an organization’s health can continue to deteriorate. 

Prevention is Key

Detection in advance is key for dealing with carbon monoxide or cultural monoxide.  Being proactive and making sure you have the systems in place to detect the toxicity in the air is crucial.  Failure in the preventative phase can lead to serious consequences.

As leaders, there are several things we can do to put preventative measures in place to detect cultural monoxide, but the most important is listening.  Simon Sinek has a great quote where he says, “Hearing is listening to what is said.  Listening is hearing what isn’t said.”  Listening at this level gives you an accurate pulse of your organization. 

The naivety of a leader says we want to believe our culture is perfect.  It is natural, none of us desire to create a bad culture.  If the rhythm of the organization’s heartbeat is off, we need to be in tune with it.  Preventative measures are the best way to keep a healthy rhythm. 


If you remember one thing from this post, let it be that culture starts at the top.  Culture is constantly being built, with every decision and non-decision.  The reality of that can add tremendous weight to the shoulders of a leader. 

We have the awesome responsibilities to create a desirable workplace.  Developing a positive an enjoyable work environment for the people we lead is critical.  It is something that we must fight for daily.

Cultural monoxide is the silent killer of organizational culture, only if we allow it. 

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