Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Cultural Quicksand™

Identifying group embraced dysfunctional behaviors (actions) and cognitive assumptions (beliefs)

What is Cultural Quicksand™?


We coined the term ‘Cultural Quicksand™’ to describe the dysfunctional concepts and behaviors that individuals and groups can get caught in/stuck in while working in an organization – these are constricting assumptions and behaviors that sap our energy, our motivation, our creativity, and our hope.

One of the key obstacles to individual and group effective performance and job satisfaction are the dysfunctional behaviors and underlying assumptions that are ‘invisible’ to the company or department. Invisible, and yet keep it stuck in ineffective ways of operating. We call these unproductive assumptions and behaviors, Cultural Quicksand™.

Identifying these cultural assumptions and behaviors helps us see them more clearly, employ interventions that free ourselves and our employees from this Cultural Quicksand™, and allows us and them to become enthusiastic engaged members of an effective organization culture.

This identification of basic ‘Cultural Quicksand™’ is neither to satirize, nor blame, nor draw a frozen “oh, ain’t it awful” picture. This is meant to be the first step in capturing and identifying these cultural sand traps.

First of all, we hope, by sharing some of the ones we have identified, we will help you identify the Cultural Quicksand™ in your own organization and departments. Second, we also would like to introduce you to a list of multiple management actions to changing these stuck areas in a way that puts your organization and its employees on solid ground. Ground that lets you push off into your most effective future.

What does Cultural Quicksand™ look like?

We define Cultural Quicksand™ as the cultural traps that we all get caught in while working in an organization — the constricting behaviors and assumptions that sap our energy, our motivation, our creativity, and our hope.

We will present several types of Cultural Quicksand™ that we have identified through the years. And we hope that it will help you identify additional ones of your own that don’t match any of the categories we have already identified. Perhaps you will even put a name to it that helps you simultaneously communicate it, and strategize approaches to change it. We believe that how you name the obstacles can capture their dysfunctional meaning, and make them easier to communicate; we have found that is the first step to help pull you and the employees around you out of the quicksand.

Examples of Cultural Quicksand

  • AGGRESSIVE HELPLESSNESS – employees assume they are helpless and continually attack management as a response
  • THE BATTLE AGAINST HOPE – all positive ideas, events, initiatives, or future vision are met immediately with criticism, cynicism, stated memories of past failures.
  • THE WORSHIP OF AUTONOMY –independent effort and action are always more important than collaborative action; individuals avoid collaborative effort, support and/or teamwork, seeing it as interference to their own individual work.
  • MANAGEMENT BY ABANDONMENT – managers believe that there is little they can or should do with or for their employees; they focus on their own needs, leaving employees to resolve their own problems.
  • I ONLY HUM THE NEW SONG WHILE THE MUCIS’S PLAYING – employees just play along because they believe the tune (suggested change) will slowly disappear, or be replaced by another ‘good suggestion’ shortly.
  • A LACK OF CARE IN GENERAL – patients or customers are processed by the letter of the law, not the spirit. Their requests and questions are not treated seriously., but seen as part of them being malcontents or complainers.
  • SCREEN OF DISTORTION – perfectly reasonable messages are ‘misunderstood’ or distorted to ‘find’ the hidden negative message.
  • THE JELLY OF LIFE – New visions, concepts introduced by top management are simply folded into a thickness and disappear, somewhere between the appreciation of an interesting idea and the action that should be taken in order to implement it on the front line.


In Depth Descriptions of Cultural Quicksand™


The Battle Against Hope

Assumptions: that true supportive or kind behavior or interest by the organization will not actually occur; all that looks like that is a mirage, soon to dissolve in the light of reality; that the only environment one can count on is gloomy, hateful, competitive, abusive, one in which people remember hurts, carry grudges, take revenge – where there is no capacity for forgiveness, where people do things just to get you.

Behaviors: when a positive idea, event, program, or vision enters the immediate environment, or a celebration occurs in the vicinity, it is met immediately with criticism, cynicism, stated memories of past failures, or paranoid accusations — such as, someone is trying to make themselves look good at our expense; or they are trying to get something out of us, etc. This type of verbal chemical warfare shrivels any possibility of hope as the new fades into oblivion or becomes aligned with something negative. In contrast, any negative event, idea, behavior that enters the environment is met with enhancements, affirmations, and similar memories of past events to prove that this is the way we do business here. The critical mass of good is never built; the critical mass of negative gets stronger, more solid.

Ancillary to this: the accomplishments people make are ignored or diminished in some manner, while the omissions, imperfections, or negative actions are focused on and discussed. Lack of recognition is the norm. 

Management by Abandonment

Assumptions: work is basically boring and out of one’s control; one’s employees are who they are, they can’t be improved and they can’t be disciplined. There are always more exciting things to do in and out of the company than to supervise or work among one’s employees. Things are going about as well as they could.

Behaviors: managers seldom check in with their employees to see how they are doing, and how the work is going. When employees come to them with an internal problem, they are told either that there is nothing that can be done, or that they are perfectly capable of handling it themselves and are redirected back. Managers ignore peak performers and poor performers. They report incorrect facts about their departments because they are not in touch with the correct facts, nor do they ask their employees what the true facts are. They ‘problem solve’ with other departments or promise things to upper management or other departments without checking with staff. They leave the job for personal appointments, sit and socialize on the phone or with other managers for long periods of time in full view of employees. They don’t attend meetings, don’t follow through on work, seem to have little memory of commitments. 

Aggressive Helplessness

Assumptions: a “poverty mentality”, one is a victim – invisible and abused, there is not enough to go around; one is powerless to effect change and must wait for others who will never change; a lack of belief that anything can be done, especially by oneself; a lack of trust in the organization; a confirmed belief that problems are never “my fault”, nor am I adding to them.

Behaviors: active complaining and negative gossiping, “ain’t it awful” diatribes, continual highlighting others’ inability to come through, or other department’s or colleague’s errors, little to no self-awareness or observation, great defensiveness when approached with criticism or higher expectations, grumpiness and negativity in meetings, see and speak of management, other departments, and/or other facilities as the enemy. Basically, this is an attack stance toward the organization.

I Only Hum the New Song While the Music’s Playing

Assumptions: New changes never last; just pretending to make the change will help you get by until the new change dissolves or is found to be inadequate or wrong. Sometimes you never have to make the change because it is “too much for you to do and to do your job at the same time.” And it won’t really matter; management never means what it says; they are just saying what their bosses tell them to say. New ideas and programs are “momentary”.

Behaviors: New changes are met with numerous complaints about how burdensome they are. There is a continuous listing of all the problems associated with the new change and an inability to see the positive fallout. There is a refusal to change one’s way of doing things. Or there is an “as if” change until the reinforcement stops. There is strong resistance to any reinforcement of the new expectations. 

The Worship of Autonomy

Assumptions: that selves are independent; more important than the whole, rather than as part of a whole; that collaborative work is slower, useless, interferes with the exercise of one’s own power; coordinated effort is seen as an assault on one’s individuality; suggestions for a joint process are seen as a mandate or an order, and always inappropriate for one’s unique situation. Individuals feel that their way of doing things is always better than anyone else’s; they do not like to follow, and do not trust that someone else has their best interests in mind or will carry out the task in a way that is appropriate for them; they react to suggestions to follow or collaborate as blows to their independence or self-esteem.

Behaviors: Label others as the enemy, (other divisions; regional headquarters other internal groups, departments) or certainly as less adequate or competent. Refuse to take part in joint endeavors, mostly through withdrawal, but if cornered will fight for ‘artistic license’ to protect their ‘unique situation’. Act as if help or support is interference. Carry and present an enhanced picture of themselves or their division/department’s worth, while presenting a diminished picture of anyone else’s worth.

A Lack of Care in General

Assumptions: This is a job like any other job. Patients (customers) are mostly malcontents and difficult people who are always trying to manipulate the system rather than use it properly. Most aren’t that sick, they are just narcissistically concerned with themselves and their problems.

Behaviors: Patients are processed in an assembly line fashion rather than engaged in their own healing process. Patients are handled with a fast food mentality, their names are called from out behind doors, staff do not physically look into their eyes while they are registered, while they are being questioned or put in rooms, or while they are receiving medical care or ancillary services. Their requests and questions are not treated seriously. Staff repeat the rules/procedures to them with no thought of doing anything that could be more helpful.

Screen of Distortion

Assumptions: one must watch communications from others very carefully because others are simply on power trips, all messages have some hidden negative or competitive meanings that while not apparent on the surface will come back to haunt the unwary.

Behaviors: a perfectly reasonable message e.g. an invitation for someone to participate in making a decision, a reminder to someone to follow up on an issue, a request for information, is distorted to find the hidden negative message and the sender hears later, rarely to his or her face, that they were heard to have stated or to have meant something much worse than their conscious intent. The sender must decide whether they want to take the time and trouble, with no good results guaranteed, to try to change the understood meaning of the message, or whether to let it go and let another negative attribution to their character be added to the list.

The Jelly of Life

Assumptions: New visions and concepts take too much effort, and are not worth the time and effort to pass on, so a new initiative is simply mentioned in passing. Or, there is a self-centered belief of managers that new concepts are just for oneself; employees have no need to know, or wouldn’t get it anyway. (This is often paired with Management by Abandonment).

Behaviors: New visions, concepts are simply folded into a thickness and disappear, somewhere between the appreciation of an interesting idea and the action that should be taken in order to implement it. Top management, whose task it is to bring the vision and the concepts to middle management, are often puzzled by their inability to see a new concept practiced at the front line level. Middle management mismanages or neglects their task of implementing concept and vision into technical and practical implementation steps, sometimes believing that simply telling their employees about the concept is ‘managing’.


A List of Possible Approaches or Interventions

  1. Create a vision of a different belief and behaviors that states the ‘why’ clearly.
  2. Integrate and model values based thinking.
  3. Align this new way of thinking with a business objective.
  4. Formulate specific new behavior goals and communicate them.
  5. Model a different way of treating people that matches your new vision.
  6. Identify the rewards in the current organization that support the Quicksand mentality, remove the positive consequences for the Quicksand behavior, and identify rewards for the new behavior you are looking for.
  7. Help individuals to identify the beliefs and behaviors that you are seeing
  8. Take steps to build trust, e.g., build relationships, walk the talk.
  9. Create opportunities for “safe” dialogue with parties involved; either on an individual or team basis.
  10. Create “safety” by first listening to understand.
  11. Help individuals see how “victim” behavior impacts their success.
  12. Look for ways to help identify actions individuals can take to feel powerful versus powerless.
  13. Help individuals see how being “accountable” for their own behavior increases their likelihood for success.
  14. Ensure leadership support is both communicated and demonstrated.
  15. Solicit leader feedback to identify ways to integrate the concepts in daily activities.
  16. Create opportunities (maybe a team) to highlight activities which can be successful or to learn from activities which did not work as well.
  17. Implement expectations for leader support in the performance management process.
  18. Reward accomplishments (small and large) especially by direct appreciation of desired behaviors.
  19. Share stories of successful activities.


Share a few stories of your own re the Cultural Quicksand™ you have identified in your own organization, and any success you have had in addressing and transforming it. We would love to hear them.


Author, Sharon Mulgrew ©1989, 2011, 2016.

2x2-webSharon Mulgrew has both internal and external experience in organization and group research and design. Within the last twenty-five years, she has developed innovative concepts and programs that increase system-wide collaboration and effectiveness. As both an internal and external consultant and trainer, Sharon has helped varied industries implement three effective and practical interventions: Internal Service Agreements (dev 1986); Work Group Development training (dev 1991), and Labor/Management Partnering (dev 1987). Much of her organizational consulting work has focused on the application of coordination and collaboration.

Contact Sharon at