Open your culture

Mar 8, 2016 · 3 min read

Anil Dash, a great observer of tech culture, wrote a post on his blog that nails a problem in web communities: “If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault.” In the same way, if your company is full of assholes, it’s your fault.

Jason Fried blogged in 2008 that:

You don’t create a culture. Culture happens. It’s the by-product of consistent behavior. If you encourage people to share, and you give them the freedom to share, then sharing will be built into your culture. If you reward trust then trust will be built into your culture.

Unfortunately, the same goes for bad behavior. In an essay called “Don’t be a dick to your employees,” I mentioned that when management is petty, it promotes pettiness in employees. The agency in that example is the same agency which everyone left angrily. They should have. We were all treated poorly: not paid well, not given autonomy, not trusted, spied upon. That was the culture.

I worked at another company that cultivated a startup image and culture. They started with a couple of free lunches per week; they had free snacks and sodas; alcohol was allowed and tacitly encouraged on campus; there were ping pong tables, a video game room; dogs were allowed at desks; there were karaoke nights, open bars. You know, that was the “culture.”

But the problem was that all that “fun” was a smokescreen for a company that wasn’t run very well. Most decisions came from one executive and no employee had autonomy over his or her own job. You can imagine what this did: it created a culture of people mimicking that behavior. Though no one could really make decisions, we all acted like we could. This was the place where we’d have meetings full of idea people. In those, we would plan a bunch of things for other people to do. Heck, the evidence from above was that idea people were valued above engineers and anyone else who could build something, so it made sense to start acting like an Idea Person.

This culture also led to people going completely off the chain. They were not working with autonomy. They were just avoiding the usual chain-of-command to work on their own project. Again, the “culture” was to blame. We observed higher-ups doing the same thing and getting results. And no usual process existed to consult so why not go rogue? Plus, once someone went rogue and wasn’t set straight, what would stop him from doing it again? There were plenty of people nominally assigned to a team who were working on projects that should have been the purview of another team. Why was this individual working on advertising when she’s not in the marketing department? Why is this customer service person making a video for the website?

The way to fix these problems is not to chastise the individuals who are simply mimicking the behavior of their superiors. You fix it by opening the culture. A work hard, play hard mentality doesn’t suit many people. A lot of us just want balance in a job we can do well. The culture of a workplace shouldn’t dictate how you play or how intensely you do. It shouldn’t try to provide the “fun” for you, neither should it shut down all play. It should encourage those positive attributes of doing good work. Foster autonomy, grant responsibility, reward trust, encourage sharing.

If you have assholes at the top, it’s likely that you’ll create a little asshole factory. Culture is a “by-product of consistent behavior.” Open yours up and you’ll stop seeing rogue agents and useless idea people.

This is a chapter from the values that lead to better work. The book outlines g.s.o’s philosophy of doing better work by focusing on simplicity and openness with stories of work gone badly and practical advice on improving it. It is only $5 on Kindle, or $10 in paperback.