leadership, Startup Advice

“Zero tolerance for brilliant jerks”: Three easy habits to improve company culture and benefit your bottom line

Dominic Powell /

company culture

Source: City of Melbourne/ That Startup Show. Photographer: Wren Steiner.

While many business owners might be quick to dismiss the importance of strong company culture, a 2011 Harvard Business School study measured the effect of good culture and found it resulted in a 756% growth of net income.

And while he admits culture as a concept is still “vague”, New York Times bestselling author and company culture expert Daniel Coyle said it’s easier than businesses think to implement a strong culture in their organisations.

Speaking at Facebook’s Flow by Workplace conference last week, Coyle revealed three habits crucial to building a strong culture and reaping those tangible rewards. He told listeners company culture boils down to one simple concept: “When people add up to more than the sum of their parts”.

“The issue is we have a preconceived mental model for culture, which said culture is the warm, soft stuff, the DNA of the group that you ‘just feel’. This isn’t a good algorithm, and it doesn’t work very well,” he said.

“It’s hugely ironic the thing that matters the most in groups and drives performance more than anything else is the thing we understand the worst. It’s almost medieval.”

With that in mind, Coyle presented what he believes to be a better mental model for considering and implemented company culture, hinged on building safety, exposing vulnerability and informing direction. He added the reason “tech bro” companies fail so often is they lack in these three areas.

“Moving fast and breaking things is not a great way to build safety and show vulnerability,” he said.

Here are Coyle’s three habits that businesses can implement to improve their workplace culture.

1. Zero tolerance for brilliant jerks

It’s no secret the history of business and technology is riddled with founders who could be considered ‘brilliant jerks’, from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk. However, despite those founders having significant business prowess, Coyle said these types of people have no place in a company seeking to build a strong culture.

“You’d think brilliance is required in an organisation, but we think this because our mental model focuses on what we can see. When we see intelligent people working together, we think it’s going to add up to a high-performing and intelligent group,” he said.

“But our mental model for group performance is wrong because it looks at the two most important factors: status management and safety.”

Coyle said while most groups of working adults seem like they’re cooperating, there’s an inherent “whisper” in the back of their minds, constantly wondering ‘who’s in charge’.

It’s the default setting of workers to strive to maintain status while working in a group, which can lead to “brilliant jerks” being significantly disruptive, Coyle said.

To combat this and ensure a company is driving safety and openness in the workplace, Coyle said business owners should try the “two-line email” trick. Essentially, leaders send an email to members of their team, asking them to say one thing they want them to keep doing and one thing they want them to stop doing.

“This sends a clear message, and helps you change how you think about your teams,” he said.

2. Sharing weakness

Coyle draws on time he spent with the co-founder of Pixar Ed Catmull when the two were walking through Pixar’s gigantic and extravagant headquarters in the US. The author complimented the co-founder on the building and was surprised when Catmull turned to him and disagreed.

“He said to me: ‘This building was a huge mistake. We made the hallways are too narrow. We want Pixar employees to bump into each other and collaborate but [so they don’t get in the way] they just go straight past each other’.

“And then he said: ‘The real mistake we made was we didn’t realise we were making a mistake’.”

Coyle said when leaders show weakness, it goes a long way towards growing company culture, but first, we need to switch around how we view vulnerability and trust.

While most people believe a certain modicum of trust is required before being vulnerable with someone, Coyle said it works in the opposite, encouraging leaders to be vulnerable from the get-go.

“Being vulnerable and open together builds trust, but it depends on both parties being vulnerable. When Navy SEALS finish a mission the first thing they do is circle up and talk about what went wrong, and that’s operationalising vulnerability,” he said.

3. Use corny mantras

Finally, the last habit for building a strong company culture may seem like a strange one, but Coyle said he saw it at every major organisation and business he visited.

Using corny mantras — such as the Navy SEALS “silent professionals” or Google’s (former) motto “don’t be evil” — goes beyond being a good motto for recruitment and PR reasons. Coyle said these mottos are effective because of the inherent way humans operate in groups.

“We’re human beings, and we’re easily distracted, so it’s easy to lose track of what we’re doing when functioning in groups and keep track of what matters and what doesn’t,” he said.

“That’s the reasons so many organisations try to fill the windshield with their purpose.”

Coyle recommends leaders to be 10 times clearer about their goals and purpose than they think they should be, saying “you almost can’t overdo it”.

Finally, he said organisations should hold Cool Shit We Do (CSWD) meetings, to make sure the exciting things happening at the business aren’t being buried in the day-to-day operation.

SmartCompany travelled to Flow as a guest of Facebook.

NOW READ: Ditching ‘culture fit’: Inclusive culture starts with inclusive hiring, says Atlassian’s Aubrey Blanche

NOW READ: To change the culture you’ve got to change the people

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.

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