U.S. Navy photo by Greg Vojtko/Released, source

Culture plague — how to bankrupt a company

What if we consider the culture of a company like the health of a group. If a member catches a cold, there’s a chance they’ll infect the rest of the group if nothing is done to prevent that.

The same way, you can infect the culture of a company, using actions that plague it. Let’s imagine this as a game.

Culture plague — the game

Culture plague is a strategic game of infecting a company’s culture, devolving it and ultimately bankrupting it. Can you infect the workplace?

Each player must battle against odds to spread their plagues, develop new symptoms and destroy the work culture.

Starting with your first days at work, you can spread your infection across the company by planting doubts in others — earning points and preventing the good culture from becoming dominant. Players choose which parts of the culture they want to attack, but they must be both culture resistant and well connected to others before they can infect it. Eventually, as parts of the culture become fully infected, they try and destroy the culture using various methods.

Each player’s unique disease can be upgraded by evolving the strategy using points. At the start your plague is weak and unspecialized, so you will need to add new symptoms to make it stronger. Choose carefully and plan ahead in order to react to the changing work conditions and exploit opportunities created by the other colleagues’ actions.

A simple gossip could accelerate things early on, while the lack of trust can help a plague thrive in teams still forming. Rumours can infect new people but total trust destruction would allow you to wipe out multiple teams each turn.

As teams start to fall, use powerful events to alter the balance of culture. You might try to eradicate dominant good colleagues by destroying their trust, or put them in embarrassing situations to cause lots of people to distrust them.

When a company collapses, who will have the ultimate plague?

How to plague a culture?

There are more disastrous ways than we can list here, but here are some ideas.

Hire bad people — especially bad managers

This can easily but surely erode good culture. Bad managers in particular can determine good people to quit. And they will hire other jerks like them. Especially effective if they’re HR managers.

Destroy trust between people and teams

People that don’t trust each other will have problems to collaborate, won’t provide feedback which will prevent things from improving.

Lack of purpose

It’s best to not have a clear sense of direction, no vision. This will keep people confused and demotivated. Lack of aspirations is sure to attack engagement.

Destroy autonomy — micro-manage

Particularly in intellectual jobs, this is a good way to infect people easily, get them discouraged and hate their job.

Spread of false rumours

It’s a nice way to spread infection slowly. This can result in lack of collaboration and reciprocated despise.

Have no transparency on decisions

This is a sure way to destroy interest and support for ideas. Affects everybody easily.

Don’t encourage learning

Prevent people from learning and you’ll see productivity decrease very rapidly. People might even start working on side projects during work.

Don’t reflect on things, good or bad

Do this and everyone will happily leave the company after a while. They will all hate you for it. Keep on going fast, don’t think too much.

Things to consider:

Just like a virus in the real world, a good culture plague will be evaluated by these factors.

  1. Infectivity — how can you get your plague to spread fast? Control how fast the disease spreads inside and between teams.
  2. Severity — how bad is the disease if you catch it? This can slow down HR initiatives. Keep in mind that people will notice and care about severe disease.
  3. Lethality — how easily can the plague make employees give up?

Sounds familiar?

If all this sounds all too familiar, it can be for three reasons: you have played the game “Plague Inc.” or you’ve seen these things in the places you’ve worked. Or you’re an (cultural) epidemiologist and this is what you study.

Finding a cure

Working on a company culture is not easy. That’s why many times people avoid the topic, cause it’s ambiguous if not approached systematically. But there are a few things to consider.

Think of the culture as a product

Treat culture as a product, where you build something, you measure results, and learn what you can improve next. ResearchGate CEO Ijad Madisch explains this shortly.

Reverse actions mentioned above

Have a vision for employees to follow, give them autonomy to work, watch how you hire, encourage feedback and reflection and try various forms of collaboration.

Recommended books

Scout answers in books like The culture code, Radical candor or Drive. They show different perspectives around culture and ways of working.


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Product manager and user experience designer. Love to share what I know and learn from others. Into long distance cycling. Views are my own.