Cut-throat cultures are one of the worst corporate cultures to be a part of. Characterized by frequent back-stabbing, unethical behavior and high stress, this particular type of culture is absolutely torturous to those in it – whittling away at their confidence, health and sanity slowly but surely. So are you in a “cut-throat” culture? Here are some common traits of this caustic culture:

• Are you always watching your back? Do you believe that if you don’t watch out, your co-workers will not only stab you in the back, but they’ll even bury you in the grave they’ve already dug? Sam was in one of those cultures. She described her interactions with her co-workers like this: “I can’t trust a word they say. They smile and seem friendly, but it’s all an act. They are really just fishing for information they can use against me and if I make the mistake of telling them too much, I’ll find myself blind-sided. They’ll take what I’ve worked so hard for and leave me with nothing. I feel so alone.” If this sounds familiar, keep reading.

• Are ALL of your performance goals individually-based? Is your performance solely evaluated based on your individual performance with no emphasis on team results, collaboration or other contributions to the broader organization? If this is true, this can be a very bad sign. I received a note from a reader with this issue. He had been with the same retailer for years. But after the economic down-turn, the culture changed. He said now all they evaluate are the individual sales numbers that he and others produce. According to him, “this has created a cut-throat culture. No one collaborates anymore and everyone is trying to ‘steal’ from everyone else so they can survive. Forget customer service. It’s been thrown out long ago.” What are you being evaluated on?

• Have all the “good people” been let go or have left? Have you noticed that the people you really enjoyed working with, the one’s that seemed to work well in teams, were trustworthy and overall “good people” have either left or been let go? That’s a sign you should look at closely. Strong cultures, whether good or bad, repel those individuals that share different values. If you like all the people that have left, maybe you should follow their lead, particularly if you look around and don’t like what you see.

• Does your boss have a “what have you done for me lately” mindset? Another sign of a cut-throat culture is leadership that has a short-term focus and zero loyalty. What does that look like? It is commonly seen when one’s boss only cares about your current results and could care less about any big wins you might have under your belt or your level of commitment to the organization (tenure, sacrifices, etc…). If it seems like you are always on the verge of being fired if you don’t deliver today, regardless of your past performance and commitment, this might be a sign that your culture has moved into cut-throat territory.


I sure hope for your sake you are shaking your head right now saying “my culture’s not that bad.” But if you are looking at these signs and are nodding your head in agreement, let me offer some strategies you use to protect yourself in a cut-throat culture.  Cut-throat cultures are a lot like being under a dictatorial regime.  And just like being under any dictatorial regime, there are things you can do to protect yourself, but all require a degree of courage and patience:

1. Form a coalition and wait for regime change – One option available to you is to go underground and form a sub-culture of like-minded colleagues. Think of this as your own personal rebellion. Meet regularly and plan how you can support and help each other both with information as well as results. This could be a temporary strategy or one you use when you hope to either wait out leadership change or overthrow the current regime. Overthrowing a current regime is a particularly dangerous gamble, but believe it or not, I’ve seen it work.

2. Follow the defectors – A second option is to seek out the defectors and find out why they left and where they went to. Odds are if they are happy with their new environment, it might be a good fit for you. I met with several coaching clients last week who had all left the exact same bank over the course of their careers. It was shocking that each of them individually described that well-known bank as “cut-throat.” It turns out, they all found their way to their current bank and they couldn’t be happier. Funny how that works. Notice where the defectors went to and ask to be smuggled in.

3. Get on a raft – A third option is to get out ASAP. This is the equivalent to leaving in the middle of the night with only the shirt on your back. You might just decide that you can’t wait any longer – no time to build coalitions or talk to defectors. Or maybe you’ve tried those options with no luck. If that‘s the case, hop on your raft. The good news is that I can promise you that you will immediately begin to feel better – free of the pressures and stress that you were under. The bad news is that this strategy proves to be the most unpredictable when it comes to finding another job. Be prepared that you may be at sea for a long, long time. Bring supplies.

Regardless of what you pick, pick something. A cut-throat culture will wear you down to the point that you are so emotionally abused, you may be tempted to cross the line and do something unethical – just to survive. When that happens, you’ve become one of them. Don’t let happen to you. Protect yourself, your integrity and your soul. Get a plan and get moving.