Work culture is something that can either make or break our overall satisfaction in life. It dictates behavior, attitudes, values, communication, decision making, and social interactions within your company.
Whether it’s positive, toxic, or somewhere in between, it has the power to affect your business’ bottom line.
Startup culture is especially susceptible to toxicity because of the high-pressure nature of the environment. Products and services are being rushed to market, cash is tight, and you’re always chasing after that next investment.
Competition against more established companies can be high and a lack of organizational structure can prove to be challenging at times.
As someone who works with employer branding, part of my job is helping my clients communicate their workplace culture as leverage to candidates in tight recruitment pools like the tech industry.
Sometimes, they want me to dress up toxic culture and market it as something that doesn’t reflect reality — kind of like putting lipstick on a pig. At the end of the day, it’s still a pig.
Toxic cultures hinder an uninterrupted flow of innovation, creativity, and communication. The good news is: our work cultures are not fixed. We can usually rectify unwanted traits and establish a culture where employees can thrive.
Here, some signs of a toxic culture—and what to do about them.
1) You’re surrounded by “yes” people
Remember that old folktale “The Emporer’s New Clothes”? That’s exactly what I imagine each time I encounter a leader that’s surrounded themselves with people who only say yes to them.
The power of yes can be strong. It’s associated with positivity, a can-do attitude, and productivity. It should be an encouraging and uplifting phrase.
But when people are only saying yes to a leader because they are too passive or too intimidated to speak their mind, then your culture may be toxic.
A culture that prevents people from speaking up, for whatever reason, is a culture that will ultimately fail. Without a diversity of opinion, innovative collaboration can’t take place.
We are only as rich as the culmination of unique personalities, opinions, ideas, experiences, and creativity that belongs to our people. You stand to miss out on a lot as a business if everyone isn’t contributing their unique points of view because the emperor can’t hear no.
How to fix it:
An inherent human need is to be seen and heard, especially in the workplace. If we aren’t, our morale declines, productivity is affected, and eventually, we start to look for greener pastures.
Establishing a culture of rock-solid open and effective communication should be the first place to start.
Ask your team to start speaking up and sharing what they really think. And when they do, actually take the time to listen. With intention. Welcome what they have to say and take it with good grace. Even when you are being challenged.
Make sure everyone knows that their opinions and thoughts are not only encouraged, but valued.
When people feel valued, they actually bring value to the bottom line.
2) Job descriptions are vague—and no one knows what they are responsible for
I get it. Startups are a collective team spirit effort, where it’s all hands on deck and everyone takes on a sort of generalist role to get things done in addition to their specialist roles.
But it starts getting toxic when employees don’t know what’s expected of them or how their efforts will be measured when quarterly review time comes around. Your company risks coming across as unfocused and disorganized as a result.
Some companies try to hand over the responsibility of defining roles by offering new employees the opportunity to outline their day-to-day responsibilities and choose a title themselves.
In my experience, when someone asks you, “What job title do you want?” it’s not because you are overly qualified to do just about anything. It’s because the company lacks the maturity and organization to define the roles and titles themselves. This is how we end up with titles such as “Marketing Ninja” and “Hacker-In-Residence.”
When roles and responsibilities aren’t fully developed, outlined, and communicated, it’s challenging for employees to live up to their potential and show you why you hired them in the first place.
How to fix it:
Ensure that when hiring, that job descriptions are well thought out and written with clear expectations and goals for the role. What do you expect from them at the get-go? What do you expect of them in 1 month, 3 months, 6 months performance-wise?
Include all of that information in their contracts as well.
Give regular constructive feedback and don’t skip out on quarterly reviews. Create a plan together on development and progress, and help them grow their roles in a way that benefits both them and the company.
3) Everyone works overtime, all the time
One of the drawbacks of working at a startup is the blurred lines between work and our personal lives. It’s become so common in the startup world that it’s become the standard. Long hours have replaced the traditional 9–5 and home-by-dinner mindset.
There’s a lot of groundwork to cover while building startups from the ground up, but expecting employees to prioritize work over their own lives is a sure way to induce occupational burnout.
People look to their leaders as examples. If you’re the first one in and the last one out (way past a reasonable stamp-out hour), then your employees will feel they have no choice but to do the same. And they may resent you for it.
How to fix it:
A good rule of thumb to remember is that long hours do not equal productivity, neither does it necessarily equal high performance. No matter how hard you try.
Lead by example and actually clock out at the end of the day. Stress the importance of employees attending to their personal lives and well-being, and that they are expected to take care of themselves, for their own sake and for the sake of the company.
Enable them to do so by offering flexibility, benefits that take care of their well-being and health, and by practicing what you preach.
4) Failure is discouraged and punished
A former manager threatened to wring my neck over a mistake I made while editing photos. It was my first time trying alone and my second week on the job. The toxicity of that organization stays with me.
On the other hand, I’ll never forget the first week I started at a new job, and my new manager looked me straight in the eye and told me, “I expect you to fail, over and over again in the coming months”.
The thought of failing in my new role made my knees shake. But being told it was expected was liberating. This was a far cry from my experiences before where failure put a target on my back for humiliation and punishment.
If people aren’t allowed to fail, then they aren’t allowed to really succeed.
Brushing yourself off and getting back up to try try again is admirable because failure leads to innovation, resilience, better decision making, and humility.
And creating a culture where failure is discouraged will make you miss out on employees who will never grit their teeth and try their best.
How to fix it:
Embrace the fact that failure is going not only going to happen, but it should be encouraged.
Be more tolerant of it by encouraging your employees to continuously fail and learn from their mistakes. Move away from blame and only celebrating successes. Start celebrating failures too! And open up workplace discussions to include what this week’s epic-fails stand to teach everyone.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some mistakes that can and should be avoided.
These are mistakes born out of recklessness and carelessness. And it’s important to distinguish between the two. But none the less, bad mistakes are still teachable moments.
By opening up the door to failure, employees learn that failure = learning opportunities. And with learning opportunities comes innovation to find a solid solution.
Toxic cultures aren’t always characterized by drama and fighting. Most of the time, it means that there are very real factors within a culture that are actively harming, or have the potential to harm, productivity and the bottom line. Most importantly, toxic cultures have the potential to affect the well-being of leaders and employees alike.
No matter what it is that’s affecting your startup culture, know that there is no such thing as a culture that cannot be fixed or saved. You just have to be willing to do the work.