5 Characteristics of a Cutthroat Culture

cut_throat_business_ii_by_noizkrew-d4wcxob“He exemplifies everything our culture is about. He models our core values; heck, he literally wrote the book on ’em. This won’t come as a surprise to any of you, so without further adieu, this year’s employee of the year award goes to…Niccolo Machiavelli!”


Hard to imagine, yes? Back in the day (like way, way back), that may not have been too far-fetched. Truth be told, his ghost wanders the hallways of many of our organizations.machiavelli

Most in corporate America wouldn’t claim his philosophies as their own, but too often our workplaces hint at something else. Underneath the cheesy veneer of many team portraits is often a culture that you wouldn’t guess is there based on the smiling people with the flawless teeth and impeccable hair in those stock photos.

So what are the characteristics of a cutthroat culture that would make Mr. Machiavelli proud?

1. Power rules.

Power dynamics will manifest differently from organization to organization. Sometimes it’ll be overt. Other times, not so much. People in positions of “authority” tend to lord it over those they perceive to be “below” them. Intimidation is not only an acceptable influence tactic, but a typical one. Getting and keeping power and influence within the organization is one of the ultimate ends of people within this sort of culture.

2. Competition is anything but friendly.139607135v3_225x225_Front

If you look closely, human remains litter the ground at the base of that corporate ladder. People will do anything–anything–to get ahead. If that means they have to mischaracterize your idea, so be it. Maybe it’s persuading others to take sides against you in an ongoing organizational debate. Everybody thinks they’re Michael Corleone.

3. Ego is a main motivator.

There will be statements about performance and efficiency and teamwork and collaboration and all those things that are good in and of themselves, but lurking just underneath the surface is the real reason people in this sort of culture want completa-egothose things: ego. It’s a very important thing to them that they’re a very important thing. If they take on projects, you can be assured that they see something in it for them. It’s all about prestige. The spotlight. The limelight.

There’s another entire post on unchecked ego being weakness masquerading as strength, but I’ll spare you that one. For today anyway.

4. Everybody’s a critic.

Not of themselves, of course.

I think it’s important to push each other, challenge assumptions, and so on; but in this scenario the vibe is super critical and hyper-cynical consistently.

I think it’s important that departments and areas cross-pollinate ideas; but in this scenario everyone knows more about everyone else’s departments than those within the department. You know the type–they know more about operations than Operations, more about training than Training, more about finance than Finance, etc. And they take every opportunity to let people know.SI Exif

5. Nothing’s ever good enough.

Especially if someone else does it.

Why does it matter? It’s things like this that drive good people crazy. People generally want to work hard, do good things with other good people, have purpose, and feel like they and their teammates are contributing to something bigger.

Aggressive, cutthroat cultures make it far less likely that that will happen. People learn through their experiences — their perception of their part in the organization’s story. Those experiences tell them that the way to get ahead in that particular context — and maybe even the way to simply survive — is to consolidate power, compete to win at all costs, embrace egomania, criticize everybody and everything, and realize that nothing is ever, every good enough.

Machiavelli would love it. Maslow? Not so much.

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