Toxic culture - I'm putting in more resources to help the project move faster, but people are slowing down



  • Background: I work in a company that has a bad culture: everybody has been treated the same: The same salary, no rewards for high achievers, and no punishment for bad employees, including people who have a part-time job during work hours while not doing anything. The company pays on the lower end and requires a lot of knowledge of niche market and custom IT systems and business rules. The two people, who got fired, were only fired after one year of constant warnings for not doing anything and watching porn multiple times.

    My team is working on a new system and two new employees got onboard with high productivity. We are on 70% of the project completed after almost three years working on it, but other people got promoted in other teams, based on relationships while not achieving anything. My team have not had a salary correction in two years and is solving a big problem for the company, and we are still below the market average

    Problem: the team got demotivated and contaminated with the culture, while before they wanted to change the company, but now they are becoming slackers. Management is increasing the complexity of the project (never-ending scope creep and unrealistic expectations). I am putting more resources such as external freelancers, but the more I put the more they slow down.

    Note: the resources are not redundant, but they focus on different areas such as QA automation and DevOps that speed up development. They know I am trying to do my best to finish the project, and I try all my best to give them the option of being self-managed and make decisions, but for some reason, they are responding negatively because they know the company is willing to pay external people and not pay them better or improve them.

    My current problems are:

    • team members are lying to me
    • team members are leaving work unfinished for me to correct
    • team members are acting like they are doing a favor to me and I'm not the real boss but my boss
    • team members are pushing more and more to take more time to do the same thing. An example: last year was two days, but now they are pushing for one week
    • team members are decreasing the quality of work

    I talked to my boss about this and he said we can't say too much or punish because we "depend on them" to maintain an old system and the current system. The new system is being done in a similar way to the old system (very complicated without documentation), so the developers can build job security.

    This was something that was discussed at the beginning of the project that needed to change including employee rewards, but the culture doesn't change and it's repeating the same errors as before. Including the same developers on my team who saw the old team doing this, and now they want to become like the old team and repeat the same pattern, so they might be getting a shitty salary, but will be able to build a business on the side and maybe retire sooner.

    Any suggestions on how to change this behavior? I know that if the project is completed successfully I might have some more power to talk to the CEO to let him know what is going on.



  • TL;DR:

    The main problem is the toxic culture of the company. You can't improve the team's behavior without addressing the toxicity of the environment. You need the company's leaders' full support on this. You can present them facts and solutions, but if they don't care (and from your question it is obvious they don't) and don't fully support you, then you will be fighting a losing battle.

    Full answer:

    Let's say you are in school. You pay attention in class, do your homework every time, you are a hard learner, you never cheat on exams, etc. You are a good student basically. Some of your classmates are the same as you (good students). Some others students don't really try that hard (they might miss some homework, might get a bad grade at some exam, might daydream from time to time) but they manage decently. And some of your colleagues don't give a damn (they don't learn, never do their homework, they never pay attention in class, and they cheat on all exams). Like many things in life, you get a normal distribution with many students falling in the middle, with extremes to the left (very good students) and to the right (very bad students).

    Now a new school year starts and you get a new Math teacher. This Math teacher doesn't care about what happens in their class. They don't care if you pay attention, if you do your homework, or if you learn anything. When exams come, they look the other way when they see people cheating. Then everybody ends up getting pretty much the same grades (you studied hard and got an A, other cheated and got an A+).

    Any suggestions on how to change this behavior?

    I'll respond to this with a question of my own:

    Whose behavior?

    Are you going to try to convince your fellow students to stop cheating and be fair and start learning instead? Are you going to convince your teacher to do something about the situation? What would be your approach? What chances do you think you have with either of these approaches?

    When a situation like this exists and nobody is doing anything to make right of all the wrongs, everyone eventually figures out that it's best to stop learning and start cheating instead. If you can't beat them, join them, right?

    This is exactly what happens with your situation. Good people figure out that nothing is done about those who "cheat the system", so they join them (if they don't leave in disgust first).

    You very well put it in your title of the question: this is a toxic culture. You can't fix an entire company's toxic culture by yourself. Whoever is running your company is incompetent, and you don't really have an influence on them since you are their employee not their boss. You can explain to them with facts why things are bad and how they can be fixed. But if they don't care (and from your question is obvious they don't), then I suggest you find another job and let them go down the toilet, project, company and all. Figure out how much effort you are willing to put into this situation before giving up, or cut your losses and go find a company without a toxic culture.



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