An unhealthy culture spirals downward. The process is the same whether it’s a church, a workplace, or a society. Just like a virus that silently, sneakily, once inside it begins to take over.
One of the scary things about viruses, whether cultural or epidemiological, is they destroy.
They destroy in lots of different ways. Some enter and work quickly. Others creep so slowly and dormant for years as they subtly manipulate the cells to their control. Their impact is felt all at once when a tipping point leads to their expression. Others hang over the culture like a thick cloud and resist efforts to eradicate.
As American culture experiences unrest not seen in fifty years, organizations and churches alike are trying to understand how to assess and build a culture that naturally moves to accomplish the mission. In light of all that’s happening, now is a good time to highlight symptoms of an unhealthy culture.
Viruses come in many forms, but symptoms don’t. A symptom is the way a body shows there’s a problem. Since there are only a few, you know them well. The most common are coughing, fever, vomiting, headache, runny/stuffy nose, diarrhea, aching, and tiredness. When these symptoms show up, we know our body’s been infected.
One helpful way to build culture is to learn the symptoms of an unhealthy culture. Understanding the symptoms allow us to monitor a culture’s health and respond quickly when sickness is detected. The symptoms of cultural illness are the same whether it’s a church, organization, business, or country. But what are the most common symptoms of an unhealthy culture?
1. Vision Division.
Jesus observed that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Matt. 12:25). Unhealthy cultures have division over the vision. When people disagree on the desired destination they are unable to see a shared future. The lack of a common vision and shared future can give birth to every other symptom on this list. When vision disagreement is left unaddressed the middle disappears. Lines are drawn and fractions emerge. It’s us or them. The battle is on. Instead of seeking to understand the other side, communication tends to mischaracterize and attack. At its worst, vision division forces people to choose a side.
2. Relational Isolation.
In unhealthy cultures, people are disconnected from one another. The lack of relational depth and connection contributes to people thinking ME instead of WE. When individuals care more about themselves than the mission, their culture feels prickly. They are rigid and full of policy and procedure. The people serve the policies, instead of the other way around. Rules don’t foster healthy relationships. Instead they are established to avoid relational distractions. Such cultures depersonalize, divide, and isolate. Trust in these cultures is largely absent. At its worst, relational isolation teaches that it’s every person for themselves.
3. Communication Chaos.
Healthy communication is a challenge in every culture, but you can count on it being a mess in an ill culture. Secrecy, gossip, poorly addressed or unaddressed conflict, and debate about what’s factually true are great examples of communication chaos. There are also well-known elephants and sacred cows around every corner that aren’t discussed or acknowledged. Communication symptoms take many forms, but each one leaves individuals feeling unsafe and vulnerable. At its worst communication chaos leads to a lack of trust and cycles of conflict.
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4. Act, Don’t Ask.
Instead of a culture that invites cooperation and co-creation, unhealthy cultures draw bold lines between the leaders and the led. Leadership isn’t interested in robust dialogue, discussion, or co-creation. Instead their focus is to get people to act and submit to the plan. Some contexts call for such leadership (a battlefield, natural disasters, etc.) Normally though, such cultures suffocate and inhibit personal development. Often such cultures see individual development as a threat to output. Potential is secondary to production. At its worst the message delivered to participants is keep your head down, be humble, and do what you’re told!
5. Affinity-Based Authority.
This symptom is marked by leadership being transitioned from one to the next based on personal affinity rather than performance. In such cultures, character and fruitfulness are secondary to current leadership’s similarity and relational connection to future leadership. When authority is affinity-based rather than earned, it leads to inauthentic styles of relating. It encourages people towards unhealthy competition to win the few leadership positions available. Instead of aspiring to individual flourishing and then offering a contribution in line with their unique design, people claw their way to the top, resign themselves to their lot, or they leave. At its worst, the message delivered is that winning happens by being like the leader in personality and interest, rather than performance.
Without Christ-like intervention, unhealthy cultures get worse over time.
Vision division, relational isolation, communication chaos, act don’t tell, and affinity based-authority are common symptoms of an unhealthy culture.
Disciple making cultures pay close attention not just to what’s happening, but how things happen in the culture. Healthy cultures recognize and lead with the understanding that the medium is as important as the message. It’s important because signals are sent explicitly and implicitly.
Humble leaders are willing to do a cultural check-up that examines different aspects of the culture as they look for symptoms that indicate bigger problems.
As you think about your church, workplace, or local culture, are you able to see any of these symptoms? From your position in the culture, what will you do about it?
By Justin Gravitt