Can You Fix a Toxic Startup Culture?
The short answer is; yes, you can fix a toxic startup culture, but not always and not easily. Here is a short guide to increase your odds and focus your efforts.
1. The Background: A Game of Value Creation
Change is as difficult for organisations as it is for people. Still, it is possible to to fix a toxic startup culture, if you truly understand the workings of people dynamics in groups and the underlying reason why you need people in a tech startup in the first place.
Startups are in the game of value creation through leveraging technology. The rules of the game are set by the current macro-economic paradigm itself. These rules are not always fair, and often, there are interventions to skew the scores through legitimate and illegitimate ways. Still, in large parts, the rules of the game remain in effect, especially for startups because they are small and nimble. (As organisations get bigger — things tend to get more political.)
Value creation through leveraging technology is possible by;
(a) In-depth understanding of how to use already existing technologies well
(b) Seeking problems that people think are worth solving (or building new ways for entertainment)
(c) Innovating by combining / remixing / building upon the existing technologies to find solution to these problems, thus pushing the tech revolution further
Also — (d) changing the way people live in someway, thus creating new problems that are to be solved by next generation startups — i.e. the Protopia Concept Kevin Kelly mentions.
For all of the above, you need people. Human brains are the processors that are able to navigate that complexity. Nowadays with automation, organisations are able to grow with less number of people. This does not mean they rely on people less, it is the opposite, they have to rely on people more. The shift is from high number of low-skilled people to low number of high-skilled people.
When you bring a number of high-skilled people together, you also have to design the right behavioral systems and cultural structure to enable their co-creation and collaboration to a maximum degree. This is culture building.
This is why building a startup culture both as an area of study and as a business service will only get more important as tech advances.
2. What Is the Core Reason Behind Toxic Cultures?
Toxic Culture is; veiled implicit aggression being the accepted communication norm within a company. The core reason for that, is fear.
“Toxic Culture” is a great simile as it immediately makes visible a couple of facts: That there are “toxins” within the system; that it is a threat to the well being of anyone who interacts with it; that it also infects people who are exposed to it and turn them into hosts which carry the toxins to other people.
Mismanaged fear leads to displays of aggression in veiled, rationalised, systemic ways; accompanied by its denial. This is the toxin.
Not all people deal with fear the same. Those who are life-long learners and don’t tie their self-worth to the success of the business are able to deal with fear in a more mature way. Those who prioritise “success over someone” to “success with someone” usually have lower self-esteem and find it difficult to handle fear. When people can not deal with fear, that fear in turn, evolves into all sorts of aggression.
We are animals after all. All the complex thinking we do at the Prefrontal Cortex of level; can’t change the fact that a large part of our brain consists of primal urges that we carried over through evolution. Not unlike being startled by a loud noise. BUT, both being a civilised member of society, and being a good leader in a startup has to do with reigning in our primal parts. Even the most sweet and loving dog can display aggression if backed into a corner and perceives a big enough threat. Strength of character comes from managing our fight/flight responses in socially ambivalent and complex environments.
The key idea is this: If you can’t manage your fear, you’ll most likely have either a fight or flight reaction. If you are in a startup (or any environment really) where you can’t handle the fear or fly away, you are left with your instinct urges for aggression directed towards the people you work with.
3. The Colours of Aggression
As people get smarter, they learn to mask their aggression better, as they get wiser, they learn to control it.
In a workplace, because people are more restrained, more “intellectual” and know the consequences of physical aggression very-well, they resort to a different type of violence. In many cases, it is so institutionalised and reflexive that they themselves are unaware of what they are doing when they condescend a colleague for a work they have done. Many toxic workplaces are full of people who use condescension, mockery, unfairness, using power over other’s life (in a way to hurt their work-life balance in purpose), status anxiety, class, race, sexual orientation and gender as tools to squeeze more work out of them.
Toxic people use these weapons in their arsenal and follow-up by giving great-sounding, very rational reasons for their comments or actions, but at the end of the day, what they do is a form of non-physical, systematic aggression and hostility arising from fear. Fear of losing. Specifically, it is the fear of losing their own status and power and being subjected to similar treatment themselves. So they become an instrument of toxicity without ever stopping to consciously examine why they act that way.
4. Fixing a Toxic Culture: The Behavioral and Tactical Layers
Very simply put, the behavioral layer is to be understood, and the tactical layer is to be acted upon.
The Behavioral Layer (what you need to understand)
The Tactical Layer (what you need to do)
- Valuing titles and position.
- Praising rules & procedures and punishing for breaking rules.
- The information that is flowing through from gossip.
- Creating any form of US versus THEM situations.
- Trying to motivate through fear & loss & failure.
- Valuing competencies and skills
- Praising high quality thinking, initiative taking and decision making.
- Platforms to regularly inform and hear people
- Having shared stories and rituals.
- Motivating through meaning, mastery building and autonomy.
- The people who can’t cope with uncertainty (thus handle fear) well, with people with a high tolerance for uncertainty and high self esteem when it comes to their core abilities (so they don’t feel threatened when they are challenged).
- Change communication to a more open, accountable and honest version of its former self. Allow people to ask for the “why” behind decisions, and be patient in explaining them.
- The physical environment to support your cultural values and to shape the behaviour of groups in a positive way.
- Any practice that is even remotely associated with being unfair. (From compensation to how parking spaces are allocated.) Redesign and rebrand if necessary.
- The perception of people within the company towards work by sharing that infectious feeling of accomplishment, pride, creating and being a team that can trust each other.
Culture building is an area of expertise in its own, not unlike being a technical solution architect for an IT company. Expertise in a field comes with its own required set of know-hows and past field experience. So if you are a founder and not very good at it yet, it is okay. This is why you are reading this, after all, right?
And when you don’t have the answer, it is also okay to ask for help. That’s why we are building CultureBoom.
5. People: The Creators, Innovators, Problem Solvers
A group of human brains co-working in harmony is a beast in solving novel problems, creating and innovating. Which means, a great workplace culture is the biggest competitive advantage any founder can dream of — and that only the clueless wouldn’t value their company culture and let it turn toxic.
I love to think of startups as organisms living in an ecosystem. This is because, how they work is a complex process that is the cumulative result of many moving parts.
To be able to effect any kind of change (let alone a change in culture) you have to understand not only what these individual parts are, but also how they act together. For a more detailed elaboration on that idea read: How to Build a Startup Culture: 5 Do’s 5 Don’ts and 5 Heuristics
If you are curious…
I’m Ozzie and my domain expertise has been people, culture and learning for the last 10+ years. Founded some startups, written some books (including Startups Grow With People: How to Pick Partners, Recruit the Top Talent and Build a Company Culture). Also acted as a consultant for some great companies. Now I’m building CultureBoom — an MVP solution for growing startups.
All the other stuff I made over the years is at ozandagdeviren.com