It’s funny how honest coworkers get with each other when someone is about to leave a company. I had worked for a startup for just shy of two years and was leaving my full-time role at the company, transitioning into a remote consulting relationship with them. People knew I was gone for good, so as I was having my goodbye lunches and drinks, we exchanged a lot of advice and reflections on the things we experienced.
I’d be lying to you if I said that I did not vent about frustrations as a part of these reflections during my last few weeks with my closest coworkers.
The biggest thing I vented about, and the biggest factor that made me leave, was the culture.
It’s completely true what people say about culture in organizations. If you have good culture, your company will be successful in retaining the employees you want to retain. If you have bad culture, the opposite will likely happen.
Culture is a vague word that embodies many things within a workplace. When one of the organizational leaders stands in front of the rest of the company and says, ‘We have great culture here at X,’ what does that exactly mean?
So, what about the culture specifically drove me away?
It was that almost everyone was perceived as a yes-man. This is not exactly a bad thing, but when coupled with the organizational structure it became a talking point among many circles. Organizational leaders were much older than those at most other startups and therefore had more experience, knowledge, and connections within the industry. In general, they know where the direction of the industry is going, so they called the plays and we ran with them.
In the beginning this was smooth. As time went by, not so smooth. As in most other startups, many pivots happened, and the graveyard of dead projects grew sizable over a short period of time.
We followed marching orders, knowing that something was not going to work, but going through the motions of analyzing and building it anyways. As the desire to find something that sticks increasingly grew, we ended up throwing more at the wall.
We continued to follow marching orders, working hard, sacrificing personal time, building things brick by brick, abandoning them halfway through, and having resentment fester inside.
So, as I was walking to lunch on one of my last days at work with a coworker, we talked about this. He then mentioned the following to me, and it started making sense in my mind –
In the circles around here, if you don’t push back, they’ll perceive you as junior regardless of your title
This is not true in every company, but it was true for this specific one.
I was thinking about the dynamics of employee interactions. Most of the company was on the grind every day, burnt out, and felt as if they had no control over workload or direction. They were awesome foot soldiers and always read to follow the commander’s orders. However, there were a few individuals that seemed to have it great. They went home on time most days, their jobs are safe, and they seemed relatively relaxed.
So, what was the difference?
In this company going through rapid growth phases, every day came with new fires to put out and new problems to solve. You would expect it to take the input of a normal, relatively happy employee, and produce an output of an overworked and stressed out one.
Yet amidst all of this, the few who made it work for them were the ones bold enough to push back on the high volume of demands and produce their own ideas of how the company should operate within their domain. Of course, once in a while they would put in the extra time to meet deadlines and do things they didn’t necessarily agree with. This was independent of their title. Us burnt out employees were envious and sometimes resentful while buried in our 70-hour weeks because we didn’t want to risk coming off as not a team player.
In hindsight, I applaud them.
The projects we were swamped with ended up getting tossed. Very few projects originated from a grassroots level within the company. Whether the employees stayed up late or left work on time, it ended up not making a difference. Burning the midnight oil to meet a delivery had no impact in the grand scheme.
The people who stood up for a positive culture stayed happy. They established healthy boundaries and gained respect from their managers. I wish the rest of us would have done the same.