Startups are often praised for an atmosphere of creative camaraderie and shared mission. The close bonds that develop among a small group of people building a company from the ground up can yield an amazingly productive climate. 

But such conditions rarely (if ever) endure as a business matures, and can easily transform into the inhospitable or “toxic” workenvironments we read about in the press. How does that happen?

Laws of company culture

There are two laws that govern company culture:

  • It always exists (regardless of whether you actively manage it).
  • It is always subject to change.

No organization is exempt, but growing businesses face particular challenges. Whether “organic” or through mergers and acquisitions, growth is one mark of organizational health that can potentially have a detrimental effect on workplace culture. The shorthand that aids a group of five may alienate some in a group of 20. And it’s hard to keep a small-team ethos alive when your organization blossoms from 10 to 200 strong.

This doesn’t mean you’re doomed to stay small or lose your way. Here are four tips for maintaining a healthy growth culture:

1. Be who you are

Every business has a sensibility and a set of core values that determine how it delivers services or products. Take the time to codify your company values. Netflix, for example, wanted to digitally transform entertainment delivery by prioritizing candor and risk-taking above stability. As it began to scale, the company developed the famous Freedom & Responsibility slidedeck to proclaim and explain Netflix values. Though it’s been updated, it still serves as the touchstone for the company — and leadership revisits it at least once a year.

As your company evolves, core values will inform its “personality” regardless of size. Further, they broadcast behavioral expectations for leadership and for all the entire team (present and future).

If you recognize, reward, and recruit to your core values, your company’s culture will evolve with you. But don’t just pay lip service to an environment you don’t reinforce operationally. For example, you can claim to value courtesy and collaboration. But if you promote the guy who generated a big sale, as well as plenty of HR complaints from coworkers, then you’re not supporting your professed culture. People notice what kind of behavior gets rewarded — and they act accordingly.

2. Don’t stick your head in the sand

Culture starts with leadership. And headline-grabbing, bad-boy behavior in the C-Suite isn’t the only culprit creating problems. Neglect can be equally poisonous. You can’t stay comfortably oblivious and hope everything just works out on its own. 

Change is inevitable, so deal with it. Different things become important at different stages of a company’s growth. You have to acknowledge and communicate these shifts in priority, and proactively monitor how they impact culture. A leader can’t control everything, but still wields inordinate influence on the way change is absorbed in a company.

Good leaders prioritize cultural health for the entire organization. This extends to recruiting, even at the executive level. Some candidates may sport impressive achievements or highly desired skills and knowledge. But if they don’t share and display your company’s core values, walk away. No force on earth destroys culture faster than bad hires.

Remain vigilant. Assess your company culture regularly and often — even when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable. If you’re not conscious of the culture you wish to reinforce, one will emerge naturally in its place…and it might not be what you intended.

3. Encourage culture, not a cult

Work culture shouldn’t be static or stipulated. Think of your culture as a live medium for encouraging the growth of your company. It needs to breathe.

Growing businesses can sustainably support many different micro-cultures under the umbrella of one macro-culture. It’s OK if the sales team tends to be more boisterous than the gang in engineering. And it’s OK if the home office in San Jose, California, and new branch in San José, Costa Rica, have different ways of doing the same things, different customs, different styles. So long as all micro-cultures adhere to the same core values and are subject to the same performance expectations, local flavor is a good thing.

Acknowledge and respect the differences among individuals, geographies, generations, and backgrounds to foster a flexible and functional atmosphere. Nurture the threads that are common to all, while allowing each to take their own individualistic approach. A company shouldn’t feel like a cult — diversity complements a healthy macro-culture in growing business.

4. Empower your people

Modern tools and technology enable a lot of work flexibility and personal accommodation, which is liberating. But on the flip side, they give rise to ambiguity which can impede cultural cohesion. Veterans of large traditional corporations or more regimented backgrounds, for example, can feel a little untethered operating in flatter-structured modern business environments.

To balance the scales, establish frameworks for employees to navigate within the organization, but encourage them to chart their own best course. Make them responsible for driving their own exceptional work experiences. Supply the tools, but insist on personal agency. The heathiest growth cultures are environments where people are expected to act like adults and are treated as such.

Human beings are ingenious creatures, capable of adapting and evolving and growing — just like the organizations we create. Cultivating a healthy work culture is possible. But it requires that you pay with that rarest of currencies — attention.