Has your 'best place to work' become a boring, rigid old man?

How to preserve your company’s edge and energy and prevent it from turning into a staid and beige place to work.

One thing that has annoyed me a bit recently has been how some supposedly ‘cool’ companies that consider themselves great places to work are anything but.  Some of those nearest and dearest to me have experienced an awful level of bullying and sheer misery when they took up a role in one of these companies.

To make things even more infuriating, the founders seemed to be in la la land as massively talented individuals left in droves, often on anti anxiety medication for the first time in their lives. They knew something was wrong, but didn’t have the tricky conversations and make the hard calls to get it right.

I want to at this stage acknowledge the workplaces small and large who have a genuine commitment to doing what it takes to make it a great place to work; there are a number of them who are taking the trickier route and committing to changing the status quo for the better. And this is not easy stuff, most people obviously want to do what it takes to keep their workplace a happy one, but as I have said before it is a challenge of human nature that we sometimes don't play well with others.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that company founders (like politicians) enter the entrepreneurial game with the best of intents. Often they are corporate refugees, having themselves escaped the darkness of long working hours, ridiculous policies, a feeling of being boxed in and large doses of anxiety. “Let’s create a company where people can be themselves! Where we encourage innovation and individuality! Where we can throw out the rule-book and work together to grow a family; a culture that everyone loves and is proud of”. And I think at the beginning, when there are only a handful of people, that’s totally doable.

I remember back to the days when my co-founder and I started up our first company, and took on our first few employees. It simply felt like a great place to work, and our team felt valued and happy.

You can liken this stage to a cute toddler. Even when they make mistakes, they are endearing little darlings, and they get away with an awful lot simply because of their age.  But what happens to these little cherubs? Over time, nature takes its course and they grow into hairy smelly teenagers; ones who don’t communicate, can’t see much past their own needs and are confused and angry about what the adolescent process is doing to them. Finally they turn into grumpy old men, with rigid beliefs, a beige outlook on life and quite dislikeable.

But whilst most parents, get some pretty good visual and other cues that their baby is all grown up, it can be trickier for company owners. They can just get frustrated and wonder why their baby is being so revolting! Here are some of the things that annoy them…

Keeping their key people (inside and outside of the organisation) lit up seems to be a constant struggle, they don’t appear to ‘bring their best’ to work, and the energy/buzz is a little flat. There also appears to be some niggles/difficult managers who bring a downer on the organization but often it’s the people with the best understanding of their company or industry, and risking disciplinary action with them is frightening.

As their baby grows up, they need to start implementing processes and procedures that were previously unnecessary. These include hiring, travel, entertainment, technology and training policies. People who have been here since the beginning may resent this, and even rebel against it. Having such policies in place is a simple function of growth, but they seem to cause more harm than good at times.

One day the management team and especially the founder might realise that actually it’s not providing them with any freedom or joy any more. They can feel trapped in the reality that they are simply doing a job. Being around a smelly teenager or a grumpy old man isn’t fun, and they might find themselves avoiding company get-togethers and spending more time away from the office, wondering how they can exit sooner rather than later.

But the worst thing about all of this, is that I think at this stage, they lose their magical creative entrepreneurial edge, and end up turning into the very thing they despise. They risk becoming a toxic organisation, plagued by gossip, bullying, policies and being resented by their staff, although generally it's not quite that dramatic.

Oh dear, this is sounding a bit doom and gloom. But it doesn’t have to be the reality. Like humans, with the right mix of discipline and affection, these companies can evolve into thriving well-adjusted individuals...

...(read Angela Duckworth’s excellent book ‘Grit’ for more on this, particularly the chapter on parenting with grit).

I believe this comes more down to common sense than a massive cultural change program.

If the company is not too big, then often there are some very simple steps you can take to support people to feel valued and excited about being part of your vision. And to ensure that the founder and exec team are also re-inspired and remember what they are here to do!

Here are the three common sense areas that you can start to work on to ensure that the ageing process isn’t too gruesome;

1. The CEO/founder has a big role to play in this!

Is the CEO visible or do they hide in the background? Do they speak regularly to their team? Do they blog or write about what they are all about? Do people know the history, their vision? Are they approachable? Do they know most people’s names?

A boring , blaming or plain frightening CEO is a massive risk to any organization. And one that is invisible isn’t going to make a great leader (the program Undercover Boss amazes me. I appreciate that these are large companies, but the fact that the leader isn’t recognized by the employees, even with a disguise, is surprising).

2. People need to feel that they can be themselves, and celebrate themselves at work.

I posted this blog about a year ago, about how a recent Google study revealed that the key thing employees wanted was to know that they could feel psychologically safe at work. They don’t want to be squashed by bullying bosses or co-workers.

Is there toxic or bullying behavior going on that people turn a blind eye to? (particularly those where an individual whose value to the organization is high, eg a top sales performer or highly knowledgeable operations manager?

Does trust and transparency go both ways? Do people feel like they are making a difference? Doing good work? Getting recognized for it? Are there development opportunities for people? Do they think that their opinion counts? What do they say when people ask what it is like to work there? Are they having fun?

3. Celebrate different ways of doing things and balance the old with the new to achieve your vision. 

We all know the world has changed, and some of the archaic policies of old do not work today. But some of the old is worth holding on to, whilst bringing in new ways of working that suit today’s environment better;

Does your company welcome innovation and contribution from everyone, have a process for this, and don’t pay it lip service? Do you constantly look at how you are doing things, but don’t change things that work, just for change sake?  Do you hold onto restrictive rules, including where and when your team can work, the approval process, travel restrictions? Are your meetings effective? (look at Matt Church’s great blog on meetings here). Are your performance reviews, hiring strategies and personality profiling tools still effective, or are you just doing them because they have always been done that way?

Start asking people in your work place some of these questions, and see if there might be just one or two small changes you can make to bring the edge back into your organisation (or, if you feel you are still edgy, prevent your company from eventually falling into the beige abyss!). Better still, look out for the company tolerations matrix, soon to be downloadable onto my website, which lists a bunch of questions for both the exec team and the talent in your organisation (or email me if you would like me to send it to you when available).

How useful would it be to understand where exactly in your organisation your brightest and best talent feel prevented from doing a great job?

Do not assume that everyone loves working for you and your company! Wouldn't you far prefer to know their frustrations now, rather than further down the track when it has escalated? Like so much 'people stuff' it is not easy. But awareness on what people are tolerating is a great first step. People often talk about how powerful one or two small but deliberate actions can be. Get clear on where you could be doing things differently in the above three areas, and watch the ageing process become a more welcoming one! Getting real by asking some curly questions is a great place to start.

Posted on March 3, 2017 .