Why Culture by Default Is Hard to Change

Why Culture by Default Is Hard to Change


Culture exists in every company, either by default or by design. In many cases, founders inadvertently allow norms and behaviors that worked at the startup level to continue for too long. As the company grows, these behaviors often stop working and need to be rooted out of the culture before they begin to slow growth, stifle innovation, and increase turnover.

Unfortunately, in addition to lowering productivity for your team, replacing even one employee can cost about a fifth of that employee’s salary. Figures like these show why intentionally directing your culture as you grow are essential to your long-term success.

Adapting to Changing Needs

Here are five problematic behaviors in your culture that you need to nip in the bud as you grow.

1. Glorifying firefighters: In the early stages, you value firefighting (or problem-solving) as the default method of operation, but over time, you need people to be more proactive and strategic. In the hyper-growth phase, you’re putting out a lot of fires on a daily basis, so it’s understandable that your culture would reward employees who excel in this area. But as your company matures, it’s important to reward those who are strategic, anticipate problems, and create systems and processes that prevent fires from happening in the first place.

Be aware that as you course-correct, some people may not be able to change. This is the hardest lesson for many founders: Many of the best people who got you where you are today just won’t be right for the next leg of the journey; they’ll need to find a new role that values their strengths at that stage. Moving on from long-term employees as you enter a new stage of your company’s life cycle is the hardest but most important thing a leader can do for a fast-growing business.

2. Rewarding utility players: Early on, it’s common for the organization to value multidimensional “utility players” who wear many hats and fill different roles. As you grow, however, you want all-stars in each specific role with clear performance objectives and outcomes. When dual roles are no longer needed, you’ll find that some of the people on your team don’t want to do just one thing; they miss being rewarded for their flexibility.

If employees aren’t willing to commit to a few clear objectives, your culture needs to evolve away from encouraging quantity. It’s also important to update the top five outcomes for each role and steer your culture to reward the right objectives. You might also need to update and narrow down your core values (usually around three or four so they’re easy for people to remember) to incorporate that transition. For example, we recently refocused our core values and condensed them from six to three to get to the heart of what our company truly looks for in team members.

3. Discussing problems instead of solutions: Too often, teams dissect and discuss problems but fail to identify solutions. Finding the root cause of a problem so you can move to a solution is critical. Gino Wickman says it best in his book “Traction”: “When addressing issues, leadership teams spend most of their time discussing the heck out of everything, rarely identifying anything and hardly ever solving something. It’s truly an epidemic within the business world.”

The key is to make explicit what was implicit. Outline how you do (and do not) do things within your company, like we did when we rolled out 12 operating principles with our updated core values. It’s also a great idea to start conducting regular debriefings with your team that seeks to identify ways to make changes to processes and systems in order to learn from, not repeat, mistakes.

4. Praising 12-hour days: In the early days of your startup, blood, sweat, and tears are treated as currency. As it grows, however, you should become more focused on outcomes than inputs.

Performance is not about time spent but goals reached. Moreover, studies have shown that performance and health diminish considerably beyond 55 hours a week, especially when stress or exhaustion is present. In the words of Peter Drucker, “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”

Remember to reward behaviors you want to cultivate. Nearly 90 percent of HR managers say recognition based on core values helps create positive change. For example, if someone brags about an 80-hour workweek, question whether she was working smart. Could she have spent less time on a project if she’d collaborated with teammates?

5. Focusing on individual achievements: No matter how many tasks a single employee checks off, your company could end up not meeting its goals if those tasks are, in the grand scheme of things, unimportant. Beyond being unhelpful, promoting humble-bragging is not a recipe for healthy growth.

Driving these more productive behaviors requires team members who demonstrate that their work values align with your company’s core values. Collaborative team players embrace relationships and are proactive and self-aware; this is an attribute you should look carefully for in your interview process.

When your employees take accountability for outcomes and strive to improve personally and professionally, your company culture will also be able to adapt to changing circumstances and thrive.

Changing a culture created by default is difficult. But if you’re clear and consistent, intentionally drive change as you evolve, and make the hard decisions when you know you’ve outgrown some people on the team, it will position you far better for continued growth and success.

Visit our Company page to learn more about Acceleration Partners and our award-winning culture.