Startup Life/Opinion/

Culture or cult? How to stop your startup falling apart

How should founders tread the line between a strong company culture and a toxic workplace? Psychological safety is the key.

Calvin Benton (bottom right) cofounder at Spill Slack app for mental health.
Calvin Benton

By Calvin Benton

Recently, UK brewery upstart Brewdog found itself in hot water when almost 100 of its former and current employees wrote an open letter accusing cofounder James Watt of fostering a “culture of fear” in which bullying and prejudice were commonplace. Brewdog says that the company has “always tried to do the best by [its] team.” 

What connects the reported high-profile cases of toxicity in the workplace is not only a strong company culture, but the accompanying prevalence of fear. Fear to question the accepted way of doing things, fear to express your hesitations or feelings — and fear of the consequences if you do. It’s this sense of fear that turns a strong culture into something more sinister: a cult. 

Psychological safety is key  

So, how to tread the fine line between culture and cult? I’d argue it all comes down to how psychologically safe your team feels.

Organisational behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson defines team psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” That could be feeling able to speak your mind, suggest a new feature idea, flag a potential engineering problem, question an accepted operations process — all without fear of being shot down, ignored or made to feel like an outsider. 

It’s not enough to hope for psychological safety: in order to happen, it needs to be actively measured, written into company policy and emotionally rewarded. 

High levels of psychological safety turn out to be a proven characteristic of high-performing teams and are linked to lower turnover. But it’s not enough to hope for psychological safety: in order to happen, it needs to be actively measured, written into company policy and emotionally rewarded. 

At Spill, we’ve recently brought in a range of actions aimed to promote psychological safety for this exact reason.

Every quarter, we measure psychological safety in our teams with a questionnaire asking people to rate how comfortable they feel challenging each other’s approaches, and how easy they find it to ask for help. We use a ‘Wall of Praise’ to remind team members to give each other unconditional praise through Slack each week — as well as with team exercises that help foster vulnerability and understanding. 

European startups leading the way 

A number of European startups are also leading the way in initiating (often simple) initiatives that go a long way in promoting psychological safety.

Monzo, whose founder and former CEO Tom Blomfield spoke out publicly about his struggles with mental health, makes sure meetings have a facilitator to ensure equality of contributions (a key aspect of psychological safety) and launched an initiative called ‘This is Me’, a short form that employees can fill out about their working preferences and mental health warning signs. It’s confidential by default, but people can share it with whoever they want to.

Contract automation platform Juro bakes in work-life balance to its processes by ensuring all one-to-one meetings between managers and reports start with the question “When are you next taking holiday?”

At digital product consultancy Hedgehog Lab, employees change their Slack status to a relevant emoji when they’re having lunch, exercising, or walking their dog — the visibility helps encourage others to do the same and avoids an expectation to be contactable all the time. 

Practical steps to promote psychological safety

There are practical steps that those in senior positions, in particular, can do to start promoting psychological safety in their teams today. Interpersonal risk taking is central in this in order for employees to feel like they can do it too. If you’re a manager, set yourself a challenge over the next week to introduce one of these new behaviours:

  • Say ‘I don’t know’ in front of other people — we so rarely hear this during our formative years (from parents or teachers) and it has such a profound impact on employees. It demonstrates openness and rallies against a culture of perfectionism.
  • Be clear with your work-life boundaries — telling the team you’re clocking off after an end-of-day meeting, not emailing on evenings or weekends, and saying when they won’t be able to do something on time. All this helps employees to set better boundaries themselves.
  • Admit to your mistakes and failures — this can be done in a light-hearted or serious way, but the important thing is to be open about when you did something wrong, demonstrating that it’s not the end of the world if an employee were to do the same.
  • Ask for criticism and invite conflict — hoping that people will feel comfortable giving feedback or questioning those above them in seniority isn’t enough. It’s the responsibility of those who are more senior to ask for constructive criticism, logic-checking and debate.

Psychological safety is about far more than maintaining the wellbeing of your teams. As a founder, creating an environment free from fear is critical to ensuring a company functions in a healthy and productive way. Psychological safety allows people to raise problems earlier, suggest changes to processes and make off-the-cuff suggestions that might just end up being gamechanging. When it comes to preventing toxic cult-like tendencies in your company, proactively stamping out fear is the best place to start.

Calvin Benton is founder of Spill, a Slack integration that provides all-in-one mental health support to employees. 

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Desmond Sherlock
Desmond Sherlock

Feeling and being safe both physically and psychologically in a startup team, a family, or any organization is what has allowed us to flourish. Think of our legal, and political systems in democratic countries. How we achieve it in a startup is another story as, unlike established organisations they don’t usually have HR departments, or middle managers to handle internal disputes. But imagine this, IF we had a cohort of startups, say in an accelerator, where we could harness the team members as a peer review network to help individual startup teams resolve their early decision making that will be… Read more »