PURPOSE: The impact of medical school culture on medical students has been well studied, but little documentation exists regarding how medical faculty experience the culture in which they work. In an ongoing project, the National Initiative on Gender, Culture and Leadership in Medicine, the authors are investigating how the existing culture of academic medical institutions supports all faculty members' ability to function at their highest potential. METHOD: The authors conducted a qualitative study of faculty in five disparate U.S. medical schools. Faculty in different career stages and diverse specialties were interviewed regarding their perceptions and experiences in academic medicine. Analysis was inductive and data driven. RESULTS: Relational aspects of the culture emerged as a central theme for both genders across all career categories. Positive relationships were most evident with patients and learners. Negative relational attributes among faculty and leadership included disconnection, competitive individualism, undervaluing of humanistic qualities, deprecation, disrespect, and the erosion of trust. CONCLUSIONS: The data suggest that serious problems exist in the relational culture and that such problems may affect medical faculty vitality, professionalism, and general productivity and are linked to retention. Efforts to create and support trusting relationships in medical schools might enhance all faculty members' efforts to optimally contribute to the clinical, education, and research missions of academic medicine. Future work will document the outcomes of a five-school collaboration to facilitate change in the culture to support the productivity of all medical faculty.