Sweeping problems under the rug is so last year.
Whether it’s a high turnover rate, toxic managers, or mistakes that keep repeating themselves, there are a few indicators that your work culture needs some improvement.
In this post, you’ll get some valuable insights on work culture from Dave Yeager, Director of Data Infrastructure at Recurve. He shares aspects of healthy organizations, lists some signs of unhealthy ones and gives you actionable tips that you can implement today to make your company a better place to work at.
This blog post summarizes some of the topics discussed in episode 88 of the Level-up Engineering podcast hosted by Karolina Toth. Make sure to check out the full interview through your favorite podcast platform or Youtube.
In this post we’re covering:
Introducing changes can be more challenging in large organizations, as they have already established a solid culture with a few department-specific tweaks added. This is something we’re already seeing at Recurve: teams on the business development side have vastly different focuses than engineers, so it’s great that they’re creating their own culture while still maintaining some unifying aspects across the entire company.
In smaller organizations, it’s easier to create a homogenous culture with lots of aspects. The bigger your team gets, you might want to think about establishing just a couple of key cultural values and let your teams work out the rest amongst themselves.
I’d recommend choosing vulnerability as one of the key values for great culture. When I welcome new joiners, I always express that I look forward to them adding something new to our team, but I also ask them to help us preserve our culture of vulnerability. I want Recurve to be a place where people can make mistakes, and instead of getting punished, they can see it as a learning opportunity. Mistakes are going to happen either way, so it’s up to you how you want to look at them.
At my company, we’re still small enough to be able to have monthly all-hands meetings. One of my favorite parts is the cheers and jeers section. It’s a great opportunity to give thanks to people who helped you in some way, and to poke fun at yourself for a mistake you made that month.
This incentivizes everyone to help each other out and to learn from mishaps. Of course, it’s a bit harder to contribute to the jeers part and admit you’ve made a mistake in front of everybody, but when leadership and management are contributing to this section, it helps ICs open up, too.
As the company gets bigger, much of the experience of the culture is reflected in people’s direct managers. There might be a large organization with a generally okay culture, but a couple of departments are still toxic because of the way they’re run.
Your experience of a company is strongly tied to your manager - this is why vulnerability and empathy are so important. When people join a new team, especially a startup, they’re taking a risk in their careers, so a manager has a sacred duty to be an advocate for their team members. But in order to make this happen, culture has to incentivize managers to be supportive.
One metric people always point to when trying to figure out whether a company’s culture is healthy or not is turnover - if this rate is high, it’s definitely something to think about. Of course, the truth is a bit more nuanced. People who are early in their career are more likely to leave a position quite soon for better paying opportunities, even if their current workplace has a healthy culture. However, as people get a bit more comfortable in their career, they’ll start to consider whether they actually enjoy working in their company or not.
Generally, lots of people leaving or quiet quitting the company could be a real sign of a toxic work culture, because it means that people aren’t even willing to discuss the problem that makes them unmotivated. In theory, you would find it out in an exit interview, but these days, quiet quitting is much more popular - people mentally checking out but remaining at the company physically.
I’ve witnessed this in my career, too: at one point, I was at a place where the folks at my department were all working for themselves, and they weren’t motivated in any way to help each other out. The culture simply didn’t reward it, so people were better off taking all the credit for themselves. Long-term, this strategy serves neither your company nor the people in it. It might work for a year or two, but it won’t make the organization long-lasting.
You can learn a lot about a company by looking at their bonus structure. Having a clear list of objectives employees have to tick off in order to get rewarded sounds the most healthy. If it’s up to the manager to decide who gets bonuses, they might end up incentivizing behaviors that they personally like, even if they aren’t in alignment with company values.
If you’re an IC who’s looking for a new job, always ask the person interviewing you to describe the work environment in one word. When someone is forced to limit their description to a single phrase, they’ll choose it very carefully to be as accurate as possible. If the interviewer has a hard time coming up with one word, it can be a sign that they’re trying to filter themselves from saying something negative.
Be careful when you hear things such as “We don’t do things that way around here.”
You should always be willing to try new things and to revisit some experiments that didn’t work in the past. If enough time has passed, results might be different this time. Don’t fall into the trap of rejecting an idea just because it didn’t work eight years ago.
If you’re not having conversations with your manager as an IC, it’s also a sign of an unhealthy culture. A manager’s job is to make sure that every single person on their team knows if they’re doing a good job or not. In order to actually determine this, managers need to be in contact with their direct reports.
In a large company, one bad manager won’t ruin the entire organization’s culture - but if we think of the team they manage, they can affect it for sure. Everybody from that group will carry the same bad cultural outlooks across the company.
The worst part is, bad managers will reward negative behaviors while disregarding positive ones, which means their feedback won’t help their direct reports in their career.
A good manager can make sure that their team members help each other out, their business outcomes are great, and that they’re motivated to stay in the company in the long run.
Sadly, one bad manager can potentially have a lot more influence on the company culture: a good manager will make sure that their team is well taken care of, but a bad one’s impact will spread across the entire organization.
One thing I find very interesting about continuous integration is that it only works if the tests are successful. However, there are endless stories about engineers not understanding why the release failed on the test, so they change the test itself.
It’s a good example of a broken company culture - instead of being vulnerable and admitting there’s an unsolved problem that the team needs to address, we just twist the tests around to meet a deadline. This way, nobody’s going to learn anything. Pull requests should be an opportunity for engineers to walk each other through the task, discuss solutions and overcome potential hurdles.
If you’re tempted to sweep mistakes under the rug just to keep deadlines, there’s one thing you must consider: what will happen the next time someone encounters the same issue? If you spend time getting to the bottom of it just once, your team will immediately know what to do the next time the same error pops up.
During my third week at BlackRock, I crashed the entire email server. I also made a $30,000 mistake at Recurve early in the company’s history. In both cases, I immediately knew it was me and admitted it.
You're allowed to make mistakes. The nature of software development encourages mistakes. Go ahead and try it, see if it runs, and if it doesn't, you can try again. Iteration is a lot faster in software compared to many other disciplines.
Dave has been in the software engineering industry for 20 years. He’s worked in organizations including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BlackRock, and for the past seven years, Recurve. He’s always been interested in what makes teams successful and what role their culture plays in their achievements in the long run.
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