The other day, I grabbed coffee and caught up with a friend who is Founder & CEO of a fast growing startup here in San Francisco. The last time we had spoken, his company had around twenty employees. But over the last year, they have been growing at a torrid pace and are now at more than a hundred employees. While this has been an amazing ride for him, the growth has come with its own special brand of challenges. And according to him, the top one has been the question of how to maintain the great culture they have built through the tough first few years of the company.
His story reflects one of the key challenges most growing companies face: ensuring that the original corporate culture develops at the same speed as the business. Corporate culture is defined as “the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company's employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions.” A corporation’s ideologies and actions are not explicit but rather become clear over time.
At young companies like my friend’s, the founders and early employees are the ones that create the culture and company values. As long as the company is small, it is very easy to ensure that the culture is well sustained. However, as soon as the company starts expanding, and as new employees start filling the ranks, most businesses witness a dissipation of the workplace methods and beliefs previously practiced if the culture is not intentionally managed.
Here are a few chief signs that your flourishing company’s culture is in danger.
As a company expands, it becomes challenging for the employers to keep in continuous and thorough contact with their employees. It is far easier to get feedback from a small team; when newer employees expand these original teams, the culture of open communication and direct feedback begins to dissolve.
This is often in part due to the previous workers’ unfamiliarity with the newly hired staff. Dr. Keith Denton, from Missouri State University, explains that when this lack of confidence exists, employees “are more likely to be evasive, competitive, devious, defensive or uncertain in their actions with one another."
With the absence of openness between team members, the initial trust that is developed at the foundation of a startup slowly dissipates. Make sure that you have mechanisms and tools in place to ensure that a thriving open environment is maintained.
Your employees should all be working together for the common goals of the company. Employees can reach common goals through department collaboration, regular team and general discussions, socializing, and consistent motivation.
When a company expands, contact between employees from different departments start becoming less frequent, and workers may feel as though their opinions and feedback are not heard. The Catalyst Research Center for Advancing Leader Effectiveness surveyed 1,500 people from six different countries and discovered that workers feel important when they “ feel that they both belong…[and] are unique.” Understandably, when the number of workers grows, employees may witness a decrease in attention and feel as though their opinions are drowned in the monotone of their many colleagues.
When this happens, they do not feel like a valued team member and may begin to isolate themselves to just get their job done. To prevent this, ensure that you have structures in place to encourage and promote interaction between employees across departments and seniority levels.
Another sign that your corporation’s culture is not growing at the same speed as your workforce is the formation of cliques. Cliques form when employers are not in touch with all employees; workers with similar beliefs and behaviors begin to group together instead of maintaining the corporation's previously overarching culture.
David Parnell, for instance, a communication coach, legal recruiter, and author of In-House explains that forming groups is innately human: “minimal group paradigm studies have shown us to form groups within minutes in a novel situation, and if there are no salient reasons for doing so, groups will even form based on irrelevant criteria such as shirt colors.” To illustrate this, one CareerBuilder survey found that 43% of surveyed employees admitted to having a “work clique.”
More often than not, these subdivisions start with staff who have previously worked together. When the new staff enter the workplace, due to the differences in experience, familiarity, and opinions, the workforce divides further into varying groups, and a uniform employee culture begins to break down.
To ensure that the overall corporate culture is not compromised by the beliefs and actions of smaller groups, it is important that companies have methods of hearing from both experienced and newer employees so that a uniform intra-corporate culture is better circulated.
How to strengthen company culture alongside growth
A big part of safe-guarding your culture is ensuring your people are engaged across the whole organization. And in order to keep employees engaged, growing corporations must first strengthen their internal communications by giving their workforce a channel to consistently give their opinions and feedback. If employees know that their input is heard and respected by their company, they will invest more into the relationships with their co-workers. They will also feel heard and valued engendering a deeper connection with the organization, resulting in higher loyalty and retention.
Once you have opened up the ability to conveniently hear back from employees, it is important to track problems that arise, monitor engagement, and respond to any issues in a timely and strategic way. This will not only continuously improve your company, but show employees that their participation and feedback really matters, because it truly does!
All of this eventually serve to ensure that as you grow, your newer employees feel valued and as much a part of the team as the founding members. Recognizing any sense of disconnect with your people and acting to re-engage employees can ensure that, even as you grow, your culture grows with you.