6 Principles of a Healthy Startup Culture

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Rework" by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does a company culture develop in a startup? How do you ensure a healthy company culture in a new business?

A startup company culture develops over time through consistent positive actions, not by installing foosball tables or espresso machines. Once established, company culture solidifies and becomes very difficult to change. Therefore, it is important to keep your eye on its evolution and intervene when necessary.

Here are six principles to cultivating a healthy startup culture in which staff members do their best and enjoy their jobs. 

Principle 1: Create a Workplace Where Everyone Flourishes 

It’s impossible to hire only geniuses and rock stars, so stop trying to. Instead, focus your energies on creating a healthy startup culture in which every employee can do his or her best work. Even a mediocre employee can do outstanding work in a nurturing workplace. Give your employees the tools, space, privacy, respect, and trust they need to achieve greatness. 

Principle 2: Treat Employees Like Adults 

It’s a waste of time and energy to regulate your employees’ work hours or police their actions during the workday. Banning employees from social media sites or telling them they need approval for a $10 lunch expense creates a culture of mistrust—and doesn’t make them more productive. 

Principle 3: Hire People Who Have a Life Outside Work 

Workaholics throw extra hours at a problem when they should be looking for a smart, efficient shortcut. They’re martyrs who create more problems than they solve. You want to hire employees who know how to manage their time wisely and productively. 

Instead of hiring someone who’s willing to give 100 hours a week to your company, hire the person who has a full, busy life outside of work. That person will be the most efficient worker. 

Principle 4: Don’t Create Needless Policies

Just because an employee does something wrong once doesn’t mean you need to create a policy addressing the error. Policy-making often feels like punishment. Instead of punishing your whole crew for one person’s mishap, talk to that person directly. Only create a policy if the problem happens repeatedly. 

Principle 5: Communicate Simply and Clearly   

Direct, straightforward language is the only kind you should use with your employees (and also with the outside world). Don’t use industry jargon or corporate-speak in the interest of sounding “professional.” Drop the fake formality. 

Whether you’re giving an employee feedback, writing a blog post, speaking at a conference, talking to customers, or writing an email, speak in your authentic voice.  

Principle 6: Avoid Absolutist Language 

Too often in business we use phrases like “I need this by the end of the day,” “we can’t spend more time on this,” or “you should be able to do this easily.” These kinds of directives create unnecessary tension and stress. Likewise, extreme words like “can’t,” “never,” and “need” send a bossy, do-what-I-say message. When people hear them, they bristle. 

When you “need” something done immediately, try phrasing it as a question: “Do you think you could finish this by the end of the day?” And when you’re about to say you “can’t” launch the product in its current state, ask yourself if that’s really true. If it is, ask yourself if there’s another way to phrase it. 

Along the same lines, limit your use of “ASAP.” Most things don’t really need to happen as soon as possible. Every request is not equally urgent, so save ASAP for when it really matters. 

6 Principles of a Healthy Startup Culture

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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