4 signs of a bad startup culture

4 signs of a bad startup culture

How would you describe your startup culture? Is it a good one? Are you confident enough to characterize it as such? Well, the good news is that if you’re wondering, you’re on the right path. Companies re-evaluating themselves on a regular basis are more likely to make impactful internal improvements and successfully move forward. To help you in that direction, we’ve prepared a list of signs that may indicate you’ve actually built a bad startup culture.

4 signs of a bad startup culture

Before that, let’s have a look at the reasons that make a culture bad for startups; and how critical that is.

What makes culture that crucial for startups? 

Evaluating the quality of culture is of paramount importance for startups. Why? Simply because startups are unstable — or uncertain — by their very nature; and have a long list of challenges to deal with. 

To name a few, let’s start with the huge pressure to run product development fast; especially since you’re running out of money and attempting to survive in a potentially really competitive landscape. 

A point often overlooked is that running fast translates into becoming as efficient as possible; that is, while making the most out of your limited resources. And, as expected, all of these challenges will, more or less, burden your people — no matter their role — sooner or later. That goes to say, challenges will eventually affect, if not define, your culture. And, with a bad startup culture already shaped, you won’t be able to make it very far. 

Although the above is more likely to happen within fledging startups, things are no different for more mature businesses. A bad startup culture affects established startups in an equally corrosive way. And that means that if you’ve not taken steps to repair a bad startup culture — if not to create a good one from scratch — sooner or later you’ll see the side effects on your progress and bottom line. Make no mistake, culture affects a long-list of aspects; from relationships and general work climate, to employee engagement, productivity, performance and, finally, your business itself. 

But what makes a bad startup culture? 

What’s a bad startup culture?

If we wanted to give the definition of a (startup) culture, we’d say that it’s the set of behaviors that derive from common experiences and the general work climate. Indeed, processes related to the way work is performed, decision-making processes, communication, they all shape and get shaped by your startup team’s common experiences and overall work climate. In the same way, the values you share define your priorities and encourage behaviors within your startup. All in all, culture boils down to the simple: “the way things are done here”.

In the same fashion, a bad startup culture probably exists when you have that “vague feeling that something isn’t right”. And though it may sound a bit controversial, it’s mostly founders that find it hard to admit there’s a problem; not to mention, look in the mirror to see how they, themselves, have contributed to it.

If you’re not one of them and you do have a strong inclination towards making improvements, have a look at these signs of a bad startup culture. And, if you find “yourself” in one or more of them, get ready to take action 😉. 

Signs of a bad startup culture 

As stated above, it’s the positive values you share with your team that encourage specific behaviors within your startup; and, thus, help shape a positive culture. In a similar fashion, the absence of well-defined or even well-communicated core values might be the root cause of a bad startup culture. 

Put simply, if you have failed to draft and share your startup’s core values early on, you’re then probably doomed to work with a bad culture, later on. That is to say, it’s highly likely that this negative work climate will have already been in existence for a long time before you take notice of it. And the way to become aware of it is simply by noticing patterns in reactions and behaviors around you. Have a look at the ones we describe below. 

4 red flags that indicate you’ve built a bad startup culture

1. Tardiness and absenteeism patterns

Ever noticed that some of your employees or colleagues have begun pulling no-shows at work, seemingly out of nowhere? That happens without a good — or, at least, fair enough — reason. Now, you may be thinking that this is probably a company policy issue; but, the truth is, seeing it as such won’t help you focus on the root cause of the problem. A possible reason that invokes such behaviors is the lack of engagement your employees may be feeling. If so, what are you going to do about it? Inspecting your work culture and attempting to iron out any flaws is a good starting point.

2. High turnover

Sticking to the engagement aspect we mentioned above, the worst-case scenario of the pattern previously described encumbers your hiring process, itself. To explain, it proves to be extremely difficult for you to grow your small startup team. Why? Simply because new hires quit after a while. So, what’s wrong? Well, if you’re quite sure the roles are clearly set and described right from the beginning, then it’s probably an HR management matter: your bad startup culture probably pushes people away.

3. Unmet performance objectives

Does your team constantly fail to meet the performance objectives you agreed upon, no matter what improvements you try to make to the processes involved? Then you probably have a cultural issue. No doubt, processes and workflows are of great importance. Especially when you’re working on a challenging venture, such as building a startup business. But, the truth is, it’s with a “people over processes” mindset that you’ll manage to overcome challenges on your journey.  So, what’s blocking your people from achieving your team’s goals? Pay attention to how people interact with each other and you; sooner or later will put the pieces of the bad startup culture puzzle together. Then, you’ll have some tough decisions to make.

4. Additional signs of toxic behaviors that contribute to a bad startup culture

Intense competition that you, as a founder, may have applauded, believing that would give drive and incentive to your team members. That’s what you probably thought, but you’ll almost certainly start noticing that it probably had the opposite effect. 

Passive aggressive comments and jokes, which, again, you probably tried to provide a rationale for their context. You’ve probably failed to do so; and you’ll keep failing if you don’t start looking for the cause at the right places. 

Workplace gossip that has probably crossed the acceptable threshold 😉. Just think of your new hires and turnover rates we’ve mentioned above. More than a few stories may come to mind.

Frequent or unresolved conflict among team members. Well, that needs no further explanation, does it?

Closing thoughts  

Now how would you describe your startup culture? Well, if you’ve seen your startup environment in some of the behaviors and patterns we’ve mentioned above, then you’re unconsciously building a bad startup culture. The good news is, it’s never too late to start paying attention to how people around you interact and start making improvements. 
And, as Dharmesh Shah, founder and CTO of HubSpot mentions: “Culture debt is much more insidious. It’s really hard to pay it off completely. Try not to take on that culture debt. Your future self will thank you.”