Seven Common Mistakes Organizations Make When Building Culture

Many organizations let workplace culture form naturally without defining what they want it to be—this is not the path to creating a successful, collaborative, and inclusive work environment. It’s a passive approach that when gone unchecked can lead to entrenched cultural problems.

A recent and messy example from the startup world is the case of Data Camp, an online data science learning platform. Their response following a claim of sexual misconduct by the CEO included averting the truth, downplaying it, and victim blaming. From an outside perspective, their actions indicate no intention of addressing the harm to those who experienced harassment and to the company’s culture as a whole. Unfortunately, that reaction is not unlike that of larger, more established organizations.

Following a much delayed public statement, an employee who had been let go posted this: “Full disclosure: DataCamp fired me in June 2018 for poor performance.” He also shared: “People say that the culture of an organization is defined by the worst behavior its leaders are willing to tolerate. I think it’s also defined by the worst behavior by the leaders that the rank and file are willing to tolerate. DataCamp’s statement only appeared after considerable pressure from the community, and it’s half-heartedness and deflection just make me sad.”

What I want to underscore is that even though Data Camp is a 5-year old organization, they still didn’t have a People Operations team to build and nurture safe and healthy workplace culture and practices. And it shows. It’s never too late to course correct. Whether you’re a legacy company or a new startup, heed these common mistakes organizations make when building culture.

  1. Not creating and communicating a clear and inspiring mission, vision, and set of values before negative behaviors, mindsets and beliefs become the unwritten norms.

  2. Not considering how your everyday actions (or inactions) as leaders affect the formation of your culture, i.e. not responding promptly when allegations of sexual harassment surface.

  3. Creating policies and workplace programs based on what other employers do versus whether they address your organizational goals. Your employees may not need free bikes or free massages at work but they do need to feel valued, respected and safe.

  4. Continuing Bad Hiring practices. The Friends and Family Program, as I call it, can lead to building highly homogeneous organizations with fragile skill sets and exclusive behavioral norms.

  5. Tolerating bad and abusive management styles. Simply put, don’t reward toxic behavior. Protecting misconduct due to loyalty, financial contributions or social status is a recipe for losing trust and respect of your most important stakeholders, your employees.

  6. Stigmatizing “less than optimal” results. Creativity and innovation require risk and leaders need to understand how to create environments that draw out the best thinking and collaboration without fear of penalty or embarrassment.

  7. Designing organizational systems where functions don’t talk to each other or worse yet where toxic leaders refuse to partner effectively. When, for example, legal, communications, talent, and inclusion teams don’t engage collaboratively, you run the risk of running failing initiatives and disillusioning the internal teams tasked with delivering this work.

Bottom line: Your culture matters. Just like your business strategy, it either strengthens or undermines your objectives. A strong culture correlates with performance. Those with top quartile cultures (as measured by the Organizational Health Index) post a return to shareholders 60 percent higher than median companies and 200 percent higher than those in the bottom quartile.

It also helps you attract talent, and drive engagement and retention. Job candidates are increasingly becoming savvier about evaluating organizational climates. They want organizations where they can grow and feel safe. A strong, inclusive, positive, clearly defined and well-communicated culture attracts talent that thrives.

In the end, culture impacts happiness and satisfaction. Over time, not only do unhealthy cultures foster lackluster performance, but they can be your undoing. Daily headlines attest, toxic cultures can bring all organizations - from corporate giants to social impact organizations to startups - to their knees.

Daisy Auger-Dominguez