Company Culture


Company culture is one of the main reasons people give for leaving a job.  It is rare for an entire company’s culture to be good or bad, instead there are different cultures in different departments, but if enough of those departments have bad cultures, the entire company gets painted with that brush.

What are some signs of a bad culture?

  • Fear and Dishonesty – If you are afraid to tell your team leader the truth about the budget for the construction project, the outcome of the data analysis, the revenue trend on the new product line, etc., then the leader will not get all the information necessary to make the best decisions and the company will suffer. If your team leader only wants to hear good news and punishes you for telling the truth, then you are stuck in a bad culture.  I have seen project teams “value engineer” what was supposed to be a premium product into an average one because they did not want to go back and ask for more money or time than was originally budgeted.  If the project team was not afraid to go back and explain why the project was running overbudget, the company could have had the premium product for just a bit more money, but instead ended up paying full price for mediocrity.
  • Festering – If someone on the team is not performing up to expectations but the boss does not deal with them timely (by coaching them to perform better or moving them off the team), resentment will build with the team members who are doing their jobs. The resentment builds up and causes the good team members to disengage and underperform or leave outright – either way the company to suffer.
  • Exclusion – If only the same few people are invited to every key meeting; chances are the company is not getting all the right stakeholders involved or surfacing the all best ideas. It stinks when someone who was not involved walks into a project at the end and asks simple questions that would have unlocked a better result if they had come up at the beginning.
  • Narcissism – If the team leader takes all the credit for success, the team members will become disengaged and/or leave the team and that is not good for the company.

Bad culture is corrosive.  It causes even good team members to take their eyes off the work and become distracted by other matters.  The worst case for the company is when a bad culture causes all the good team members to leave and only the bad ones remain – that is a disaster.  Do you know how many excellent hires it takes to dilute and eventually reverse a bad culture?  All the while, the company is performing suboptimally.

If you want to drive a good culture at your company, strive to establish the opposite of the bad features listed above:

  • Honesty – “It is what it is” can be a helpful mantra to encourage team members to get problems onto the table. After all, how can I help you overcome your obstacles if I do not know what they are?  Emphasize that it is in the best interests of the company for everyone to get the issues they see out in the open.  If a project looks like it will run overbudget, have an honest discussion about it as soon as possible.  Of course, someone is going to ask why, but if the problems were no one’s fault (e.g. asbestos behind the walls, permitting delays, bad weather, supply chain disruptions), then there should not be anything to fear.  Be honest about all the facts and let the leaders decide whether to increase the budget, “value engineer” the scope or quality, extend the timetable, scrap the project, etc.
  • Confidence and Collaboration – Establishing a pattern of honest communication, one in which team members are not punished for things that are not their fault, is critical and will often unlock more collaboration on the team. If you have the right people on the team, they will naturally want to help each other out and sometimes there is a simple solution in one team member’s head that will save another team member hour of work if the right conversation can happen.
  • Accountability – Underperformance cannot go unaddressed. If there is a failure and it is no one’s fault, do not go searching for a scapegoat.  However, if a team member drops the ball on something that should have gone right due to incompetence, laziness, a toxic personality, or general disengagement, then you either have to coach that person to perform properly or get rid of them.  The good team members will thank you for it and they will become disaffected and leave if you do not hold underperformers accountable.
  • Inclusion – You do not need to invite every employee at the company to every meeting but bringing a few new faces to key meetings may unlock a novel solution that the “regular team” may not have thought of. Even if the new attendees at the meeting do not provide a solution, the inclusion often inspires feelings of confidence and empowerment and can lead those team members to be more engaged in their jobs.
  • Share the Credit – If you are doing a great job as the team leader, you need to have confidence that your boss sees it and is giving you credit. This will allow you to share the credit for your team’s successes.  The best way is with specific, individual recognition of team members.  An event where you say, “thank you” and recognize the entire group is nice, but specifically recognizing the contributions of each team member goes even further – it shows that you were paying attention and that you value each team member’s effort.  This will do wonders, especially for team members that have the “boring” jobs that rarely get recognition.

The ultimate measure of company culture is whether everyone is always prioritizing the company’s best interests.  If team members are worried about how a project will make them look, whether their boss will be mad if they raise a concern, whether they will get all the credit they deserve, why another team member is allowed not to pull their weight, or anything other than the project, then the project will suffer and the company will suffer.