With Martin G. Moore

Episode #302

Seven Big Culture Killers

One of our dedicated listeners, Jonathan, observed that a number of culture killers can be described by words that end with the suffix, “-ism. He rattled off a couple to get me started — nepotism, narcissism, and favoritism.

He suggested that I should create a podcast episode based on these, and other “-isms” that negatively impact team culture and productivity, so I’ve come up with my list of seven big culture killers.

This episode’s pretty straightforward — I explain each term, and the nuances of the impact it has on team culture, which is antithetical to high performance.

Any conscious effort you put into creating a constructive, high-performance culture will be silently undermined by these seven deadly sins. This can leave you feeling frustrated, wondering why your best efforts aren’t getting any traction.

But it’s incredibly easy to turn a blind eye to these culture killers, especially if they were existing cultural norms when you took over the team in the first place.


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Episode #302 Seven Big Culture Killers


I received a comment on one of my LinkedIn posts a few months ago from Jonathan up in Detroit, Michigan. He observed that a number of big culture killers can be described by words that end with the suffix “-ism”. He rattled off a couple just to get me started – nepotism, narcissism, and favoritism – and then he threw down the gauntlet.

Jonathan suggested that I should create a podcast episode based on these, and other “-isms”, that negatively impact team culture and productivity. Of course, not being one to shy away from a good challenge, I’ve come up with seven massive culture killers that all end in “-ism”… although, I must say, I had to stretch the limits of ChatGPT to land one of them.

This newsletter is pretty straightforward. I’m just going to explain each term, and the nuances of its impact on team culture which is, of course, antithetical to high performance.

Any conscious effort you put into creating a constructive high performance culture will be simultaneously undermined by these seven deadly sins. This can leave you feeling frustrated, wondering why your best efforts aren’t getting any traction. But it’s incredibly easy to turn a blind eye to these culture killers, especially if they were embedded in the existing cultural norms when you first took over your team.

As you listen over the next 15 minutes, I’d really encourage you to build a mental checklist, and to identify any of the “-isms” that may be silently eroding your team’s culture. To make it even easier for you, I’ve created a free downloadable, which you can get above!


Respect before popularity… Here endeth the lesson!

But seriously, I’m leading out with this one because populism is one of the greatest performance killers, and some of the “-isms” that follow have deep roots in populism.

A culture of populism prevails when a leader decides (either consciously or subconsciously) that it’s more important to be popular than it is to do the right thing.

Populism has no place in leadership. Of course, populism has always been a huge factor in politics, but even there it’s become way more prevalent in the last 10 years.

We all have a built-in drive to seek affiliation and acceptance, but if you don’t temper this predisposition, it’s going to completely destroy your team’s performance.

For example, your people would love you if you just didn’t hold them to account for meeting a high standard of performance or behavior… conflict would be minimized, and you’d create a culture which is free from consequences. You’d simply go about doing the things that your most vocal team members told you that they’d like you to do.

But, as many of you have no doubt learned already, the higher up you go, the less likely it is that you can find a way to please everyone. Then you’re going to be severely conflicted – and even still, you won’t be able to establish a high performance culture.

If you aren’t completely committed to the principle of respect before popularity, I’d really encourage you to go back and listen to Ep.206: It’s Still Respect Before Popularity.


This term seems to be bandied around quite a bit these days and there are very few leaders who would fit the clinical definition of narcissism. But, at the same time, there is (and always has been) a huge problem with self-seeking leaders, who pursue their own ends with little regard for the people who work for them.

You’ve probably seen the telltale signs that you have a self-absorbed boss, which are things like:

  • Not giving you public credit for the good work you do, but instead going to great lengths to make sure that all the kudos flows to them;

  • A lack of personal connection;

  • Pushing to get the work done, with no interest in what it costs you, personally, to do it;

  • A burning desire to do whatever those above ask, often resulting in taking on every piece of work without question, even when it is irrationally low value; and

  • Losing their temper or bullying you when things don’t go to plan.

These types of bosses are often arrogant, manipulative, exploitative, envious, entitled, and totally lacking empathy.

Of course, I know you’re not like that – but are you 100% confident that none of the leaders below you exhibit these characteristics? It’s quite often hard to see because, guess what? If they were like that, they’d be trying to disguise their behavior by manipulating you.

Kiss up, kick down.

Self-seeking behavior was always a huge red flag for me, and when I saw it in any of my leaders, I had a ZERO-tolerance policy. It was basically career ending for them, at least as far as their future in my team went. They had to go off to find a boss somewhere else, who was a little more tolerant of their blatant self-interest.

Just remember, if you’re in it for yourself, your people will never be in it for you… ever!


One of the most important prerequisites to performance is individual differentiation. Collectivism is a cancer that takes over your team when everyone’s treated the same, regardless of the choices they make about their own performance and behavior.

Many leaders seem to have adopted a philosophy of inclusion that says, “I have to treat everyone the same no matter what.” This completely ignores the agency of the individual.

The equality principle seems to have been somehow corrupted. Everyone needs to be treated fairly for sure. If they’re not treated fairly, then other problems will inevitably arise. But, as a leader, you’ve got to be really clear on what your job is – it’s to provide equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes.

If you try to provide the same outcome for every person, then you ignore the deliberate choices they make in terms of their effort, their ambition, their professionalism, their commitment, and their diligence. Your team becomes a watered down version of what it could have been.

When you don’t differentiate between your people based on their performance, everyone gravitates to the lowest common denominator. As soon as you do this, you head into the all care, no responsibility world of mediocrity. People know they can cruise along, riding on the coattails of their fellow teammates who are committed to achieving outcomes.

After that, it becomes really difficult to identify your high performers. Why? Well, that’s easy – because they’ve already left. They left to go and work somewhere else, where their effort and value to the team is going to be recognized and rewarded. And it doesn’t matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise, your team culture will be sh!t.


This includes Jonathan’s suggestion of nepotism, too. I just covered collectivism and why it’s so important to avoid this by differentiating between your people, based on their performance. But this is very different from favoritism. This is meritocracy – rewarding those who earn it, instead of taking the view that everyone should get the same benefit, based on some misguided notion that this is how you build a great team.

To the casual observer, it may seem as though individual differentiation is actually favoritism, and this is a convenient rationalization for those who aren’t performing. Favoritism is different…

I’ve often said that you should spend 80% of your leadership bandwidth on the top 20% of your performers. Why? Because this is how you get extraordinary performance from your team. Your top performers don’t deliver 10% more than the average, they deliver 200% more than the average… which is why I live by the mantra, “it’s a lot easier to rein in a stallion than it is to flog a donkey.

Favoritism is a completely different beast. You’ll know you’re showing favoritism when your high performers start to question it. They’ll become disgruntled when they see you favoring someone who isn’t performing, based on identifying criteria other than performance.

For example:

  • Spending a lot of time with someone in your team because you’re both die hard fans of the Boston Celtics (GOOO, Celts!) – this is favoritism based on common interests;

  • Giving more latitude and autonomy to male team members than to female team members – favoritism based on sex, and we see that all the time;

  • Spending time with someone based on their physical attractiveness rather than their performance – favoritism based on attraction;

  • The age-old trap of simply gravitating to the people who are most like you – which is what I call favoritism based on ego reinforcement;

  • Then, of course, there’s hiring or promoting a family member – favoritism in the form of nepotism.

All these things drive division, cynicism, and a deep distrust in your team, and they are real culture killers.


There’s a really big difference between constructive, targeted feedback –which is designed to improve performance – and straight out criticism.

To avoid this issue, at least make sure you’re not doing any dumb sh!t – so follow the Golden Rule of praise in public and criticize in private.

I’m not advocating that you avoid giving people critique. What I am suggesting is that you don’t become the boss who’s never happy.

Clear, specific, timely feedback is essential for every person on your team, if you want to help them to perform better. The Challenge/Coach/Confront framework is your toolkit for leadership excellence and team performance. Unless you’re confident and capable of giving your team feedback, they’re just going to bumble along, not necessarily knowing what they need to do to be better. And this includes both the opportunity to build on their strengths, and resolve any obvious weaknesses.

Criticism on the other hand, is often predicated on two things:

  1. Insecurity; and

  2. Perfectionism.

When a leader is insecure, he’ll often take it out on the team. Nothing is ever good enough, and this makes him feel better about his own self-assessed performance gaps. Perfectionism, well, that’s also a scourge. It slows everything down to glacial speed. People spend time trying to predict what their leader wants and they often get it wrong, of course, only to be shouted at and sent back to try again.

Criticism tends to be generalized, unhelpful, and completely lacking in empathy. When you criticize someone, you often damage their confidence and their self-esteem, so their performance is not going to improve anytime soon.

Don’t mistake criticism for feedback. They are very different. One builds a constructive, high-performance culture – and the other destroys it.


Command-and-control leadership is supposed to be dead, but it’s still alive and well in some leader’s playbooks. It’s hard to get away with just barking orders these days, but many leaders still manage to lead with authoritarianism all the same. They just do it in more subtle ways with things like:

  • Overriding decisions that are made by their accountable people;

  • Using the natural power imbalance to force people to adopt their own viewpoint;

  • Threatening to discipline or sack people; or

  • Withholding earned rewards on a whim.

If you don’t work out how to empower your people, performance will elude you.

Make sure you give your team autonomy and flexibility in how they do their work. Support them in terms of both the resources you allocate, and your own availability to coach and guide them. Give them clear decision making rights and don’t impede or dilute them with your own desires and whims.

Performance is delivered from a culture where people feel empowered to do their jobs. They care about the outcomes because they feel a strong sense of ownership. Their professional pride is brought out and it’s optimized, and they give the discretionary effort that many leaders wish they could tap into, but rarely see.


Okay, I know this word is a little stretch, but it’s the concept that counts. When I asked ChatGPT to give me a few options for leaders who refuse to set and maintain a high standard, well, that’s the word it offered.

Mediocrity-ism is settling for low standards – and it is a phenomenally destructive culture killer. One of the biggest reasons for this is that no leader wants to admit that they’re setting a low standard. Instead, they just become more and more insular, telling everyone that they have a high performing team with the best people in the industry, and unparalleled standards.

This is nothing more than a smokescreen to avoid any performance scrutiny. It’s much easier to settle for mediocrity than it is to lead for performance, and I think this is probably the number one differentiator that separates one leader’s performance from another, all other things being equal.

In one company where I held a senior executive position, I was told when I took up my post that we had the best engineers in the business. And, my bad, I actually believed this on face value, and took my eye off the ball. I accepted that our technical competence was first-rate, and instead focused on fixing the very obvious dearth of commercial acumen.

No such luck…

What became more and more obvious to me over time was that our people had become incredibly insular. They were well-intentioned, smart, and hardworking, for the most part, but the massive gaps in their technical capability had resulted in poor asset performance.

None of the promised improvements in reliability and availability of our assets ever seemed to materialize, and it was always put down to “unforeseen events” or “circumstances beyond our control”. In actual fact, I came to realize that it was just another version of the dog eating their homework.

I should have twigged to this, because of the vigor with which the accountable executive talked me out of using global benchmarks to assess our asset performance.

But over time when I couldn’t see any improvement, I finally over-ruled that executive and got to see how our asset performance really compared to the rest of the world.

Mediocrity hides in plain sight, and if you aren’t totally committed to setting and maintaining a high standard, you’ll never be able to outrun the inevitable performance deficit that your culture produces.


No matter what you try to do to build your culture up, these seven culture killers will operate in the background, silently undoing all of your good work… and you won’t even see it happening until it’s too late.

Populism, narcissism, collectivism, favoritism, criticism, authoritarianism, and mediocrity-ism (hey, I’m going to go with that one, all right!?)… Be aware of these – look for the signs, and root them out whenever you see the slightest hint of them.

This takes a level of self-awareness that only no bullsh!t leaders have, and it also takes a willingness to challenge the leaders below you who try to hide their weaknesses from you and everyone else.

Leadership drives culture. Culture drives performance. If you aren’t a strong leader who’s prepared to do the work to build a healthy culture, then you’ll have to accept the fact that true performance won’t be part of your leadership legacy.



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