Author Bio ▼

Dr Flis has a BA SSc and a PhD in organisational social psychology and is passionate about helping people who lead and work in organisations create better workplace experiences and improving work cultures. Get free resources and tactics on appropriately dealing with negative online and offline workplace behaviours at or contact Dr Flis at[email protected] or  LinkedIn. You can also follow Dr Flis on her blog Twitter or Facebook.
December 13, 2017

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Dr Flis: Calculating the real costs of unhealthy workplace cultures

After a bit of thought, most of us would probably agree that culture manifests through mutually shared and accepted values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. These behaviours and attitudes are ‘normalised’ across a society, its work and social groups. Over time, beliefs and attitudes change, modify and mature. This process is sometimes called a ‘cultural shift’.

Cultural Shift: In society and at the workplace

Dr Felicity Lawrence

Dr Felicity Lawrence

Cultural shift is far more important than many of us might realise. For example, track back fifteen, ten or even five years ago and you probably wouldn’t have guessed that marriage equality would be enshrined into many countries’ laws. And yet, slowly, our societies are experiencing a perception shift as we (the people) mature in our thinking and beliefs.

This phenomenon also occurs in most workplaces. What many people don’t realise is that most workplaces, especially large organisations, possess two cultures that run side-by-side. The first is well known and is referred to as the explicit work culture, which I call the Universal Workplace Culture.

Explicit culture is derived from the values, behaviours, attitudes etc. that are intended to be developed through the official policies, rules, regulations, processes and procedures. The second is the implicit work culture, which I call the Local Workplace Culture. It is less well-known and relates to how things actually get done.

Defined as: How things are intended to get done.

Recognised by: The official workplace brand, values, mission, vision, policies, rules, regulations, processes, procedures, guidelines, or operating governance system.

These days, an organisation’s explicit or Universal Workplace Culture is linked to its brand, official values, vision and mission statement. Workplace conduct is described, and in some cases enshrined, through employment laws (OHS, privacy, etc.) and enlivened through the internal policies, rules and regulations, processes and procedures governing people’s online and offline behaviour (e.g., code of conduct, conflict of interest rules, recruitment process, etc.).


Defined as: How things actually get done.
Recognised by: Your daily lived experience of how the people around you interpret and implement the official policies, rules etc.

Local Workplace Culture is literally ‘this is way we do things around here’, and is derived by how people perceive, filter or interpret the Universal Workplace Culture within the context of their personal values, attitudes, beliefs. It helps shapes people’s daily on-offline interactions and lived work experiences.

Local Workplace Culture can be high localised to a particular team, group or area, and is rarely acknowledged. In fact, if you ask most leaders or managers to describe their workplace implicit culture, I would say you’d be on the receiving end of some pretty blank looks.

Developing Canny Political Nous Skills

Understanding the difference between how these two cultures interact can help you to navigate both without getting harmed, while still delivering results. This is a very canny political nous skill to possess in your toolkit. Why?

Let’s say workplace leaders recently signed an official ‘zero bullying’ policy – so it’s now part of the Universal Workplace Culture. However, this policy will only operate properly if it aligns with the Local Workplace Culture. This means, if the underlying implicit culture is based on an attitude of ‘the means justify ends’, then this new policy will simply be ignored.

Especially if people don’t know HOW to transition to the healthy behaviours. And, if you’re canny, you’ll find a way to appropriately talk about the policy, while actively avoiding changing anything that may upset the power-base of your main workplace influencers.

Unhealthy Behaviours Arise from Mis-Aligned Workplace Cultures

These days, you’ll likely find yourself stuck in a situation where you’re asked to interpret a policy, rule or process that’s so out of context with your actual, lived work experiences that it’s lost all meaning or relevance.

This is why I believe the amended Code of Conduct laws are potentially so dangerous, as these were generally first written in the 1990s (pre-smartphone era) and this 1990s mindset still drives how we try to resolve bullying and harassment matters. This legislation is now being retro-fitted into existing workplace conduct and zero-bullying policies.

I also believe this is one of the reasons bullying and cyberbullying is so rife. One of my research findings indicated that many public servants have cottoned on to the fact that the retro-fitted workplace policies simply don’t fit current day needs and aren’t protecting them. This is particularly the case in cyber-related matters, as these online behaviours can follow targets from work to home. Mis-aligned workplace laws/policies with people’s lived work experiences is one reason why workplace cultures become dysfunctional.

Spotting a Dysfunctional Workplace Culture

One way to spot that you’re working in a dysfunctional workplace culture is that you feel unsafe. You may have lurched into survival mode are doing your best to stay out of sight-out of mind. You avoid making any decisions, mistakes or risks. Depending on your role or level, you’re probably spending a serious amount of time, effort and other resources managing, worrying about, avoiding, reporting and investigating the unhealthy on-offline conduct. In dysfunctional workplaces, you’ll probably spend between two to three hours each day on these meta-activities.

  • If you’re dealing with outright bullying or cyberbullying and are seeking safe tactics to protect yourself from harm, enrol on my free one-hour eCourse here.

Calculating the real costs of unhealthy workplace behaviours.

The long-term costs of a dysfunctional culture on workforce engagement, stress levels, and mental and physical well-being can be significant. To calculate the real productivity and well-being costs associated with these unhealthy behaviours I recommend using my Cost Estimate Instrument and calculator, which you can access here. The research I provide with the calculator’s cost analysis will help you shape a strong evidence-based business case supporting a healthy work culture that you can submit to your workplace decision makers.

Alternatively, you can find out how to actively build a healthy team or workplace culture by reading about my healthy cultures program, or creative, healthy and engaged workplaces initiative, which you can access here.

About the author

Dr Felicity (Flis) Lawrence, founder of Happier Workplaces, has a PhD in organisational social psychology and 25 year’ experience in private, military and government workplaces. She provides you, leaders, managers and workers with strategies to build healthy, resilient team and workplace cultures, and to spot and safely stop dysfunctional work conduct like bullying and harassment.

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T.M. Pudikabekwa
T.M. Pudikabekwa
6 years ago

I am in agreement. You have just confirmed what I am researching on.

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper
6 years ago

Tried to look at your cost calculator. Have to buy it? So for those who don’t want to spend money, cost estimates per stress case are £18,500 from Dept of Health. Personally I think that is much too high, particularly as cost estimates for s serious injury are only £8,200.

John Crosby
John Crosby
6 years ago

Good article. One problem is that the Universal Culture may be driven by outside influences. A good example is in Healthcare where NHS Trusts need to comply with Care Quality Commision Standards and don’t take into account the safety and wellbeing of staff. Patient safty always come before staff safety

Dr Flis Lawrence
Dr Flis Lawrence
6 years ago
Reply to  John Crosby

Thanks John, I wasn’t aware that the NHS focused prioritised patient safety over staff safety. If the staff safety isn’t a priority, it must make it extremely challenging for staff to focus on caring for their patients!