What Makes (And Breaks) A Great Company Culture?

If you want to build a thriving and resilient business, you have to build a culture that connects your employees and encourages them to flourish.

Photo: Darren Chait, Australian entrepreneur and co-founder at Hugo; Source: Courtesy Photo
Photo: Darren Chait, Australian entrepreneur and co-founder at Hugo; Source: Courtesy Photo

How would you describe your company culture? When confronted with this question, it’s normal for most entrepreneurs to see culture as this nebulous, vague afterthought. But the truth is, company culture can have more of a concrete impact on the success of your business than you may imagine.

If you want to build a thriving and resilient business, you have to build a culture that connects your employees and encourages them to flourish.


What constitutes company culture?

Company culture is hardly ever defined. Yet it’s always implied. Even if you don’t explicitly define your cultures, every facet of your company is affected by it. From how your team collaborates to how you bring new business in the door, culture is ingrained in each building block of a business.

When it’s all boiled down, an organization’s values, mission, and vision are the main ingredients of its culture. It’s not the guidelines outlined in your employee handbook. It isn’t regular Happy Hour excursions with your team. And it’s definitely not as simple as hanging your mission statement or core values on a lobby wall for all to see.


Photo: Annie Spratt, Unsplash
Photo: Annie Spratt, YFS Magazine

Rather, these factors are indicators of your company culture. What determines the health of your company culture are seemingly abstract principles that end up having a tangible and substantial impact on your organization.


Side-effects may vary

Often, it’s easier to tell if your company culture is hurting business by keeping an eye out for a number of detrimental side-effects. These can run the gamut, but there are a few that are much more common than others.

To build a successful business, you must build relationships. So start by examining your employees’ relationship with your company. Do your employees seem unmotivated or feel unappreciated? Do they consistently miss deadlines? Has creativity become stagnant?

All are signs of a disconnected and disengaged team. If a team member feels apathy towards an organization’s cause, it’s normally a reflection of the sentiment he or she feels from the company. A lack of motivation, dissatisfaction, or even anxiety usually stems from the work environment.


The trickle-down economics of distrust

Two common culprits are at the root of this division between company and team. The first is a lack of trust. Nothing kills a culture (or company) faster. Trust forms the foundation needed to foster creativity and innovation. But it starts at the top. Nothing spreads distrust faster than poor leadership.

This can result in an array of quandaries, like high employee turnover and poor decision-making. Nobody wants to stay at a company that doesn’t trust in their abilities. If your company resembles a revolving door, this could be why. Distrust also obfuscates situations and events, causing leaders to make decisions based off an inaccurate perspective.


Photo: Chris Knight, Unsplash
Photo: Chris Knight, YFS Magazine

If you’re experiencing high turnover and you suspect it’s due to distrust, remember this: people leave managers, not companies. Follow the trail of toxicity to wherever it may lead to find its source. To build trust across your organization requires vulnerability, respect, and transparency from each of your team members. It’s antiquated to believe these qualities can be afterthoughts behind your business’s bottom line; they’re key to long-term success.


Don’t put the ‘cult’ in culture

The second common culprit impeding a connected company is a culture that’s too strong; this results in a culture that’s too stringent. Yes, there are shining examples of strong company cultures, like Microsoft and Zappos. But for every one of them, there are hundreds of organizations taking it from voluntary buy-in to borderline mind control. Your culture should strive to inform the thinking and behavior of your employees, not restrict them.

Just like distrust, a cult-like company culture can backfire. A strict culture strongly encourages specific behaviors. This, in turn, results in little out-of-the-box thinking and even less risk-taking. Every day, companies are losing out on opportunities because an employee feels uncomfortable doing something that doesn’t align with company culture.


Photo: Rawpixel, Unsplash
Photo: Rawpixel, YFS Magazine

But, unfortunately, a rigid company culture doesn’t end there — it often starts with the talent recruitment process. Many inflexible companies choose team members who are a better cultural fit over those who fit the role better in terms of experience and capabilities. This isn’t to say that you have to abandon all notions of cultural fit. But flexibility can lead to diversity, which can then create a more well-balanced, successful team.


Cultivating a can-do culture

We’ve talked enough about how toxic cultures can break your business. But how do you transform your culture into one that builds it? Just as you start with your employees to identify the side-effects, start with leadership to fix them.

Your company’s leaders are the conduits of your values, mission, and vision. They set the tone for your team to follow. And everyone needs to participate; it’s the only way to truly change a company’s culture.

Remember: your company’s mission statement, vision, or values pinned to a wall doesn’t determine your culture? It’s the act of reinforcing these principles that do this. And you can practically apply this by creating systems. For instance, if appreciation is one of your priorities, consider holding regular retrospective meetings to review your team’s recent accomplishments.

Every organization will have different values it considers to be of utmost importance to uphold. But there are a few that every single company should have to cultivate a collaborative, diverse community: individuality, trust, and support. Encourage risk-taking within reason. Value and reward talent just as much as cultural fit. Keep an open dialogue to not only foster transparency but creative thinking as well.


Photo: Rawpixel, Unsplash
Photo: Rawpixel, YFS Magazine

The key is to be authentic. A company that talks through problems and tackles them together survives when others crumble due to a weak foundation. Take some time to examine yours now. And maybe you’ll find yourself ready to answer the question: how do you describe your company culture?


Darren Chait is an Australian entrepreneur, based in San Francisco. He is a co-founder at Hugo, the team meeting note platform that enables team transparency and knowledge sharing by making meeting insights shareable and actionable for your team. Connect with @hugoproduct on Twitter.




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