‘Toxic culture is a symptom – not the problem’

Jim Vaselopulos sits down with HRD to debate misconceptions around culture, identity and organizational dynamics in HR

‘Toxic culture is a symptom – not the problem’

How do you define a culture? Traditionally speaking, culture was something that came from the top-down – notions that were formed by the founder or CEO. Now, however, culture is dictated by the people – it’s a collective driven by group innovation and ingenuity.

Culture however, for all its merits, is often unfairly put upon. If a company is doing badly, turnover is high and productivity is low, it’s always culture that gets the blame. And for Jim Vaselopulos, CEO of Rafti Advisors, he’s not buying it.

Speaking to HRD, he says that culture, often labelled as a problem within companies, is in fact a symptom of broader operational dynamics.

“The interesting thing about culture, and this is probably one of the more controversial topics, is that culture is typically seen as the problem,” Vaselopulos tells HRD. “We've got the culture as a problem in our company, we need to fix the culture and you want to do that directly.

“However, the reality is culture is a business symptom - and there are many business symptoms that occupy us but they're really not the core problem. Culture is one of the key issues here, and it's because culture is an outcome; it's an outcome of decisions we make on a daily basis.” 

‘Sometimes culture is strong and sometimes it's weak; it's rarely good or bad’

Vaselopulos further elaborates on the nature of culture as an outcome, challenging the simplistic binary categorization of culture as either positive or negative. He believes that this approach fails to capture the nuances and complexities inherent in organizational dynamics.

“Sometimes culture is strong and sometimes it's weak; it's rarely good or bad,” he says. “I don't think there's anyone who wants to build a company with a bad culture, but it just kind of happens. And it sometimes happens when we are at our weakest as humans. Our culture gets a little bit weaker because we are making decisions that don't necessarily align well with what we want it to be.”

Think of culture as organism, something that needs to be nourished in order to thrive. As Vaselopulos explains, much like a person's health, a company's culture can fluctuate in strength, impacting its ability to withstand testing times.

Aspirational values vs actual decisions

“If you've got a healthy immune system, you can withstand a lot of challenges,” he says. “But if you've got a weak immune system and you're compromised, bad things have bad impacts. When you're weak, that's when bad outcomes happen.

“But sometimes you can be a long-distance runner, putting in fifty hours of work week on week. You overwork yourself to the point where your immune system becomes weak, and you get sick too. So, you can have a culture that is sometimes weak because you're trying to do too much, and that's why I think it's better to look at it as strong or weak from a cultural standpoint rather than good or bad, which is more of a value judgment rather than a strength assessment.” 

Vaselopulos also highlights the disparity between aspirational values and actual decisions in a company. He points out that this disjunction is where the true nature of a culture is revealed, which emphasizes the critical role of consistent decision-making in shaping a strong culture.

“When it comes down to it, if we are trying to hit our numbers for the quarter and we're trying to get products out the door, quality is what we've written on the wall. But we're willing to let a few parts go through so we can hit our numbers, culture's going to see that disjoint between what we say we want to be and what we really are – that’s where culture has a mind of its own. And that’s where we need to be careful.”

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