How to Fix Broken Cultures

I had a conversation a few weeks ago about culture with a friend who is a professor (if you see me in person, we’re going to end up talking about culture, I’m sorry, it will be painless, so please don’t avoid me). He said that there are a lot of tools that will help you measure culture but that nobody seems to have figured out a tool that will help you fix culture. I replied flippantly that the tool is to fire people.

Obviously the right answer has more nuance. I’m reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and in it, he says that humans identify themselves into tribes, and tribes hover around 150 people. Once the tribe gets larger than that, we create factions, and then we eventually split. One of the reasons for this is that we can’t build and maintain close relationships with more than 150 other humans. (This nicely complements some CELC research from several years ago that found that one of the leading indicators of corporate misconduct is when employees identify more strongly with their subgroup than with the company as a whole.)

I think at organizations larger than 1,000 employees, the tool is to fire people. I understand the nuance, and I see the empathetic shades of gray that would lead to managers being reluctant to get rid of a wrongdoer in a close-knit company. In larger organizations, though, where culture has grown organically rather than being cultivated, for all but 150 of the employees, all of that nuance and empathy and spectrum of gray is invisible. All they see is that the company is ok with certain kinds of misconduct, and that sets a terrible example that will have undesirable repercussions. (I have a salacious example. Please e-mail me if you want more details.)

Smaller organizations have a better shot. What I’ve seen is that startups tend to begin with good intentions, a certain amount of naivete, and a desire not to be stodgy and slow like big, established companies. People work hard, the company grows, it hits the 200 employee mark, and suddenly, the firm brings in “adult supervision,” who bring in former direct reports they like and trust, who bring in their own perceptions of the way work should be that may or may not align with the startup’s culture.

If the CEO is intentional and thoughtful about the startup’s culture and what makes it special and good and successful, all of that can be cultivated, even in the face of what can feel like nasty, outsider politics. If the CEO is busy and distracted or someone convinces him or her that all of the cultural change is a natural, normal part of growing up, the company’s culture is going to end up being whatever the most politically savvy employee decides it’s going to be.

I lied a couple of paragraphs ago, when I indicated that cultures grow either organically or are cultivated. All corporate culture is cultivated. Companies cultivate culture intentionally or through neglect, and the intention can be positive or negative.

So here’s what I think your tools to fix culture are: if you’re a large company, fire your wrongdoers and be brave and public with employees about why you did it (they’re gossiping about it anyway — you might as well ensure they know the truth).

If you’re a small company on the brink of being a larger company, you have a tiny window. Find out what makes your culture great. Don’t guess. Ask your employees. Culture is a monolithic word that can mean a lot of different things depending on whom you ask, so ask a lot of people. You’re a small company, so ask all the people. Analyze the data. Figure out what your secret sauce is. Tell your employees what the secret sauce is. Ask them how they think they should create and maintain the secret sauce. And when people spit in your secret sauce, when they do wrong, punish them and immediately do what you have to do to clean the saliva out of your sauce.

One last thought: if employees don’t see the CEO spearheading and prioritizing the culture initiative, don’t bother. The body can’t go where the head won’t.