What Are Some Signs Of A Bad Startup Culture?

I was interviewing an engineering candidate a while back. Everyone on the team really liked him, and we were set to hire him if our interview went well.

It turned out that I liked him too.

He was smart, passionate about his work, and I felt he would fit into our culture quite well. He was working at a competing startup, so I asked him what was his motivation for leaving:

“The founders were fighting all the time,” he said. "It made the work environment really bad.”

You’re not going to have a great culture if the founders are fighting with each other.

Here are some other signs of a bad culture I’ve seen during my career:

A. Too much “I” and too little “we”. I worked at a company once where every other word out of the CEO’s mouth was “I”. “I dd this.” OR “How’s my division doing?”

It’s very demoralizing for the rank and file. Or…

B. The emperor has no clothes. Not surprisingly, this same CEO never wanted to be told anything wrong. How can you do your job if you can’t tell the CEO problems?

It’s very difficult, let me tell you. When the emperor has no clothes it leads to…

C. The rise of the ass-kissing sycophants. A CEO that only wants to hear good news surrounds himself with yes-men and yes-women. When you too many people kissing up to the boss, there’s a problem. You can also have the problem of..

D. Everyone looks like me. Maybe in other parts of the world it’s okay if everyone looks like you. Here in the Silicon Valley alarm bells should be going off if everyone looks like you.

This same CEO who had no clothes on had a management team of all white men. The employees of the company were 80% white men.

There’s likely something wrong with your culture if everyone looks like you in the multi-cultural environment we live in. You can almost be guaranteed, at a minimum, that the best and brightest aren’t part of the team. And since we’re on the subject of team, how about…

E. Nobody’s talking. I was at a startup where two of the executives would call each other on the phone rather than talk face to face. What’s the problem with that?

There offices were ten feet from each other. Ten feet!

And this was a great sign of larger communication problem in the company. The employees weren’t even close to being on the same page. Now that’s dysfunction.

And one last indicator of a culture problem might be…

F. Dead plant syndrome. I joined a startup years ago, and I should have known it was a mistake because of the dead plant outside the lobby (Read: What the Dead Plant Outside Your Office Is Really Saying About Your Company).

How can you run a company if you can't even water a plant? Check the bathrooms too because how can you expect a well run company if you don't care enough to keep the bathrooms clean?

For more on the importance of startup culture, read: Why Your Startup Culture Is The Key To Your Company’s Success?

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