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5 big learnings on (startup) culture problems

Introduction

When I work with startup founders, I often get questions on team culture. This is a classic problem in any organisation, but it seems even more so in startups since all eyes are on them to prove better ways of building a business – including building better culture. But many startup founders struggle with culture, often reverting to outdated management techniques.

My perspective on working with culture is heavily influenced by a neurobiological and systems view of how humans have evolved to interact in social groups. Here you can read my five important learnings that result from both theory and practice.

#1 Culture is not created, it happens

The most common mindset problem most of us have when leading, is believing we have to have everything figured out. This is especially problematic when we believe we have to ‘create’ a good culture. The way to get to a respectable culture is not by thinking we can create it on our own: culture happens through actual daily interactions and behaviors in our team. It rings very true here that our actions speak louder than our words. We may speak of creating the best culture any company has ever seen, but if this is not followed by congruent actions, it will never become a reality.

#2 Approaching culture top-down will backfire

The second piece is related to the first one and points to the heritage many of us carry from outdated but ever present industrial management practices. I see many young (and old) leaders still enact classic authoritarian management in their startups, working in a top-down manner. Mind you, I don’t judge this at all, since it can be unbelievably scary for a founder to let go of control too much! Still, problems arise when a leader creates some kind of manifesto that all our team members should adhere to.

Organizational change consultants have a saying: people support what they create. If we push a new culture top-down, without involving the whole system of our company in the process, people will resist. And we are lucky when team members resist these efforts openly, because we then get a second chance at trying a more bottom-up approach. If people don’t resist openly, they often start to resist – or even resent – covertly. They may feel increasingly restricted by you as a ‘boss’ or by the workplace you’re creating for them. Such covert resistance is even harder to repair over time, so think twice when writing your next cultural manifesto for you team or company!

#3 Implicit trumps explicit

One fundamental finding in modern neuroscience has been the difference between two types of memory. You are probably familiar with the first type, called explicit memory. This type of memory deals with facts like ‘my brother’s name is Tim’. It also deals with episodes from our lives, like what happened during my birthday last year. This type of memory is easily recognized as a memory in conscious awareness.

The second type of memory is less known, called implicit memory. This type of memory deals with emotional memories and procedural memories, like how to ride a bike. But also, when I remember my birthday last year, what it felt like to be there. Where explicit memories are kind of ‘cold’ facts, implicit memory are more warm, fuzzy and felt experiences. The interesting part here is that implicit memory is also less consciously experienced. In fact, when we experience an implicit memory, we often don’t even recognize it as such: we believe this is just what we feel like right now.

Implicit memory has a strong influence on our current state, how we feel and what we think. It can strongly guide us by means of gut feelings: sensing in our bodies what we want to approach and what we want to avoid. This type of memory is very important in culture. It tells us what ‘procedures’ are to be followed on a sub-conscious level. For example, you probably have noticed how you react very differently when you are with friends, family or at work. Implicit memories tell us what the ‘culture’ is of being together, with certain groups of people.

When leaders approach culture, they tend to only focus on what’s explicit, what’s visible. But the most important pieces of culture are often invisible, implicit and unspoken. An example of this in organisations is the infamous ‘informal leadership’, where everybody implicitly understands who to pay attention to – whether or not he or she in an actual role of formal power.

A key to transforming a team or company culture is making the implicit explicit, in a safe and respectful way. Feel free to contact me if you want to know more about working on this deeper level with your team.

#4 The founding team models culture, whether they like it or not

We now know that the implicit strongly influences the explicit. This has consequences for how culture is initially formed in teams. The founding team already has certain ways of interacting and behaving with each other. This will be the blueprint for the culture when the company starts growing. In other words, the founding team members are role models for the new team members. The biggest leverage for any founder of a startup therefore is to reflect on their own behavior and interaction patterns. Once we see what we are modelling, we can decide if this serves the actual culture we are aspiring together. Having open and respectful team sessions around this subject, especially in the early stages, can be extremely valuable in setting the right initial conditions for the team culture. Neglecting this aspect of your founding team can undermine your culture in a later stage, making it that much harder to succeed.

#5 You can’t hide your culture from customers

Culture will directly or indirectly shine through the products and services your company offers. Especially if you have customer service in your company, customers will get a direct peek into your culture. What do you anticipate your customers would pick up from interacting with people from your team? Also, if your company creates products, it can be very interesting to explore how your culture might be reflected in there – and if this matches your own experiences within your team.

I’m curious to hear if you recognize one or more of these learnings and situations. Or maybe you have interesting experiences that contradict mine. In any case, feel free to drop a comment or contact me to continue the conversation around the important topic of culture!

18 augustus 2017

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