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A lot is made of 'corporate culture' and many companies are keen to develop cultures that promote the success of both their businesses and employees.

But building a corporate culture is hard work. Case in point: the recent reports that Zynga was seeking to claw back equity from some employees has sparked a discussion about corporate culture in Silicon Valley, which can stereotypically be summed up as, "Work hard, work harder until you get bought out or IPO".

According to newly minted venture capitalist Michael Arrington, "Startups Are hard. So work more, cry less, and quit all the whining." As Arrington sees it, complaints about Zynga's "tough culture" are unwarranted:

You might be sad that you work long hours and that sometimes your boss yells at you when tensions run high. But you also know that there is nowhere on earth like Silicon Valley.

Nowhere else that is structurally designed to help you make whatever you can imagine into reality. Nowhere else where there are so many like minded people who are willing to sacrifice and work hard to create something new.

Silicon Valley is certainly an unusual place, and perhaps there is an argument to be made that companies there shouldn't be measured quite the same as companies elsewhere, but what about corporate culture in general?

If your company is looking to build a healthy culture, here are five tips.

Honor your word

Much of the initial criticism leveled at Zynga was centered on the fact that the company was reportedly trying to claw back equity from certain employees. In other words, it was trying to negotiate after-the-fact things that it had already agreed to.

While some may defend this action, the reality is that it creates an appearance that Zynga wasn't capable of keeping its word -- a real problem when it comes to building a strong company culture.

If an employee isn't doing his job, he should be terminated. Period. Otherwise, the best approach is the moral approach: honour your word whether you have to legally or not, because a healthy culture can't exist without employee trust.

Set expectations about work-life balance

A big part of the debate around what's happening at Silicon Valley startups has to do with work-life balance, or lack thereof. Obviously, there are unsustainable situations. The average person, for instance, will not sustain 16 hour workdays.

But beyond specific hour numbers, the debate misses a key point: companies often run into precarious work-life balance issues when they haven't set clear expectations about what's expected of employees.

If most of your employees work 12 hour days, for instance, make that clear up front, and don't try to make excuses for it (like "there's beer on tap" or "we have five video game consoles") so that it doesn't seem so bad.

By being up front about your company's work-life philosophy, you'll reduce the number of hires who weren't prepared for the lifestyle they'll find when they first walk through your doors as an employee.

Make sure you're not selling a get-rich-quick scheme

Money may not be everything, but that doesn't mean that compensation doesn't matter. Indeed it usually does. But when developing a company culture, it's far too easy to pretend that money is all important.

Above-market salaries and future IPOs might keep employees around for a short while, but they won't necessarily keep them happy and productive over the long haul.

So don't make the mistake of believing that you can build a dysfunctional culture by promising that the pain inflicted by the culture will soon be replaced with gobs and gobs of cash.

Remember that your employees have different levels of investment

A small startup hiring its third employee might reasonably expect that employee to make the company a big part of his or her life.

But by the time it's hiring its thirtieth employee, it should recognize that the third employee and the thirtieth probably perceive different levels of investment in their employer, both financially and otherwise.

Which highlights an important point, particularly for young companies: it's nice to want to maintain a 'startup' company culture in which every employee hustles like there's no tomorrow because there may not be one otherwise, but the more you grow, the fewer employees there will be who were actually there when the company was a newborn 'startup.'

So be realistic: your company doesn't represent the same thing to each of your employees. Recognizing this, focus on building an environment that's centered on where the company is today and hopes to be in the future, not some idealized, nostalgic view of where it was when it began.

Don't focus too much on culture

What's the best way to build a strong company culture? Don't get too caught up in developing one.

Strong, confident leaders are savvy enough to know that they can't successfully micromanage the development of a company culture and are comfortable enough to let one evolve organically over time as employees come, go, and grow.

Patricio Robles

Published 30 November, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2407 more posts from this author

Comments (2)

Martin Dower

Martin Dower, CEO at Connected-uk.com LLP

I, Patricio, think your last point is the most salient. A healthy corporate culture is the by-product of a number of facets of the organisation, including:

* Honesty & fairness
* Transparency
* Employee / employer partnership
* Core values
* Shared vision
* Politics

almost 5 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Patricio,

Thanks for the post. In my experience, too few companies take culture seriously. I think you're right about not obsessing over building a culture, there has to be an element of natural evolution based on the people you employ. Intelligent management, in my opinion, is about trusting people to deliver and giving them sufficient freedom to find a style and method of working that suits them whilst delivering results. You can't make someone think and work like you if it;s not natural to them. PLus if everyone thinks and acts the same, wow that company's is screwed.

The leaders of a business have a profound impact on the behaviour and motivations of their employees. Changing an established culture can be very difficult, especially if you have a large number of 'old timers' who have grown up with the current culture, so it's important business owners think carefully about their values from the start.

I've seen CEOs try to impose a culture that the employees just don't want. The end result is demotivation, a fall in job satisfaction and an autocratic imposition of 'culture'. People leave, productivity drops. To build a healthy and lasting culture, you have to involve all stakeholders and find a balance - give people a feeling of involvement and they have a greater incentive to support the culture.

thanks
james

over 4 years ago

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