Startup Culture is a Reflection of its Founders

"The culture of my startup is starting to head south. People are starting to get real toxic, everyone's complaining that they are overworked, and the vibe is getting really bad. Where is all this coming from and how do I change course?"

August 20th, 2021   |    By: Wil Schroter

Our startup's culture can all be mapped back to one person — us.

We are the cultural North Star of our startup, and everything we do, and how we act, puts our ship on a course for good things, and if we allow it, really bad ones. Our challenge is that we often don't recognize how even our simplest actions broadcast across the entire organization and poison the actions of everyone else. Our worst behaviors, even those that we think are positive, become the virus that infects everyone.

Toxic Politics? That's Us

All of that shitty infighting and toxic politicking — that's on us. Either we encouraged or we let it happen — either way, we're responsible. We may not see it that way though, we may think that "everyone else is being shitty" but that's not how this works. Yes, those people may in fact be acting awful, creating little cliques, and talking smack in Slack. But that behavior is a reflection of what we allow.

While the complaints and politicking do in fact originate from the staff, as the Founders, it's our job to stamp it out and set the tone. By simply allowing it to flourish, we are just as soon encouraging it.

Conversely, if we nip it in the bud and address it head-on, either by calling out the offenders or in a more extreme case, parting company with them altogether (usually a better solution BTW), we're setting the tone for everyone. And sometimes the person we need to be harshest with is ourselves. The moment we start acting toxic, we've basically given everyone else in the organization permission to follow suit.

Overworked and Burnt Out? Our Fault

Our staff is going to pace themselves at our pace, good or bad. If we're busy slacking off and sending selfies from our world travels all the time, no one is going to work twice as hard while we're working on our tan. On the other hand, if we're working ourselves to death and convincing the rest of the staff that they need to do the same in the name of startup glory, their horrible health and mental not-well-being is entirely our fault.

We often fail to understand the massive impact we have on not only our own well-being but that of every person in our organization. We have the ability, and this isn't a great one, to inflict an ungodly amount of pain on so many people simply by the tone we set in our organization.

We also have the power to do the opposite — to enable great behaviors, life achievements, and well-being. But if we assume that's "their responsibility" we overlook the fact that their lives are directly correlative to the environment we create. We would never choose to make everyone miserable, but we have the power to do it regardless.

Ashamed of Being Who We Are? On Us.

Can our staff even be themselves, their true selves, within the organization? Can we openly talk about the struggles of daily life or are we supposed to be a caricature of the model employee that we pretend to be so that we overlook our lives altogether? Is vulnerability a pro or a con?

Whether or not our staff feels comfortable being vulnerable is directly reflective of our own vulnerability. If we project an image that shows we can do no wrong, our staff will try to mirror that image as best they can — and that's a problem. Creating a false image prevents us from understanding who they really are, which, if we're speaking truly as managers, creates bad data to respond from.

If our staff can't tell us that they have to watch the kids versus working, or that they are fried from being overworked, or that they simply made a mistake, we're going to try to solve for the wrong problems. If we want to foster a culture that truly allows people to open up and share completely, we have to do that ourselves. We have to show that it's OK to make a mistake because we make them too. We have to show that yes, life happens, and our lives happen too.

What we can't do is expect our culture to flourish without our guiding hand. We can't expect the culture to develop in one direction while we're personally heading in another. We are the amplifier, and we need to be as deliberate in our actions to drive our internal culture as we are to build our entire startup. This is the way.

In Case You Missed It

What If The Founder's Personality Is A Startups Liability? During the early days of my first startup, I stumbled upon a huge liability that was killing us quickly — me.

The Cost of Toxic Employees (podcast) We all know the value of having a star player on our team. But what about the opposite? Wil and Ryan discuss how to identify and handle toxic teammates before their impact spreads across the organization.

How Does a Founder Get Fired? Fired as the Founder — totally a dream (or a nightmare) come true?

About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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