In large organizations, culture is key. The values and habits of an organization, and what it rewards and punishes, are the background radiation driving towards discrete outcomes in a world of infinite possibility.
Your culture is a living thing - it changes and adapts to new teammates, external forces, and the broader environment. And sometimes it gets sick; sometimes your culture gets a virus.
A Culture Virus is a contagious idea that hooks into your culture like a pathogen, passing from person to person, and very often preying on the weak and struggling - the people who are susceptible to convenient excuses.
Below we’ll work through examples of common culture viruses that can occur as companies grow. These elements of culture aren’t matters of style – if you let them creep into your company, they will meaningfully deflate, devalue, and debase your company.
Culture Virus Examples
Culture Virus One: Lack of accountability
Lack of accountability is the most common culture virus in existence. The most common and problematic cause for a lack of accountability is when organizations don’t have easy ways to understand whose fault something is. As organizations grow, often they’ll transform into something where the specific outcomes for the business can be divorced from people’s day-to-day work.
On software teams, long build times are a common cause here: I delivered my thing 4 months ago, it’s not my fault they screwed it up downstream; I got bad requirements, look upstream for the problem. Sometimes build times are so long you can just blame people who aren’t at the company anymore.
Another common case is people gaslighting the company about the difficulty of their job - you know what outcomes they own, but they always claim it was so much more difficult than you imagine. This is particularly problematic in roles where skills are specialized or isolated, and when it’s done to the level where it never is quite bad enough to go dive in and figure out just how difficult the role is.
This virus reaches a fever pitch in two modes:
- When teams just constantly blame other teams for everything, constantly.
- When there’s so little accountability that teams never blame other teams, because nobody is being held to account for anything. Often the company sees that kind of civility as evidence things are going well, because people fighting becomes the only short-term metric they have for inter-team collaboration. As a result, this failure mode is actually worse.
Culture Virus Two: Burnout, Resourcing, and The Impossible
A second common culture virus straddles the line between illogical burnout, resourcing, and the impossible. This virus looks like different forms of saying “there is too much work” way too soon.
Burnout is really real. Many people are overworked and tired. However, sometimes a team or a group catches a burnout Culture Virus. Pathogenic burnout seems to show up constantly, regardless of current conditions or workload, and when you zoom in on specific causes or hours worked, it just doesn’t add up. Often this is accompanied with claims that are found to be obviously false, e.g people saying things like “I worked literally all night” when you’re positive that’s not true.
Another version of the “there’s too much stuff” virus claims that there’s never enough people, or not the right people. Specialization can become a hammer for every solution: we need a QA team, operational staff, a chief of staff, an administrative assistant, an event coordinator..etc. Or sometimes people start to treat people like resources that add and subtract to get outcomes - I need one more engineer to do project X (when in reality, output is much more determined by a mountain of decisions in each project than just the resourcing input).
The final virus in this trio is fatalism: “We tried that already.”, “It’s impossible.” People will say this about things that are clearly possible. The overwhelming majority of outcomes any software startup might want to achieve are achievable with enough effort; very few things are impossible. Whether people use this as an attempt at short circuiting conversations or expressing severity or just not realizing things can be done - once this becomes part of the lexicon it can spread like wildfire.
All of these viruses lead to the same place - people always, constantly, pathologically saying no, we can’t do more, we don’t have enough. This virus is particularly challenging because often these issues are 100% real, and it can take a lot of work to understand and be decisive on whether it’s real or a culture virus.
Culture Virus Three: Toxic Positivity
The final culture virus we’ll examine is Toxic Positivity. This one is interesting because it’s more often found in leaders.
To win at a startup you need a very unreasonable willingness to keep going, to move forward, to make it work. Like, a crazy amount. Burn the boats. There’s no going back.
The problem is that this fanatical commitment often blurs into toxic positivity - not admitting when things are wrong. Theranos is a great example here.
It is critically, critically important that your leadership group never loses hold of the truth. It’s important that they never lose hold of the ability to make a nuanced and accurate analysis of what’s working and what’s not. If you do lose this, you’ve caught a culture virus, and it can become the way of business that problems aren’t acknowledged, issues are brushed off, glaring gaps are quietly ignored.
Other symptoms of this virus include radicalization of arguments very quickly. E.g. “I think the home page doesn’t look good” gets the response “Well maybe you shouldn’t work at this company.”
Fighting Culture Viruses
Your organization needs to have an immune system for Culture Viruses. You must have leaders and team members roaming the proverbial organizational body like white blood cells, ready toremove any signs of culture viruses.
It’s important that your approach to fighting culture viruses is always-on. Approaches that don’t remove that virus give it a chance to adapt and learn how to shape shift. While much of leadership is a game of moderation, fighting culture viruses is the one place you must have no chill. You must require people leave the conversation not agreeing to have different points of view. You must be clear there is no other acceptable point of view, and you’re willing to back that up with your reward system.
It’s important, however, that you enforce these cultural values evenly, without malice or anger. You have to be willing to hire and fire based on them, but you need to avoid doing it in a way that is culty or problematic.
Other things you can do to help fight culture viruses:
- Meaningful equity stakes help. Accountability diffusion often happens when people perceive paths to optimizing their compensation that don’t strictly align with adding value to the company.
- Leadership really matters. One bad leader can change the culture for a huge number of employees. Finding the right leaders and ensuring you have the right amount of visibility and oversight into the culture they’re instilling is important. Outcomes can be due to many reasons, but if the culture underneath is rotten, problems will eventually arise.
For the culture viruses above, the following can be done:
- Accountability: Be insistent that people show business value from their work for as long as humanly possible. If it ever becomes totally impractical, keep it as the default expectation and be reasonable in interpreting aberrations. The minute you let people get credit for things that are totally diveroced from business value, you’ve started to lose the war.
- Possibility/Resourcing: Avoid anything that looks like resourcing math as a valid argument for engineering projects (e.g. 2 eng = X, 3 eng = Y). Avoid operating in a way where people are incentivized to get you to agree to smaller business outcomes - e.g. if “finishing your OKRs” is valued more than “your OKRs delivered the amount of value we wanted”, you’re in trouble.
- Positivity: Especially with leadership discussions, be clear that a nuanced discussion is happening and desired, and potentially even say out loud that the goal is to build understanding, not enforce points of view. Also: leaders are often very busy - avoid having nuanced discussions in time restricted forums (including instant messaging).
You Have To Be Right, You Have To Be Careful
Given you have to have no chill with Culture Viruses, you have to make sure you’re right about what you’re going after, and you have to do it appropriately. Be very careful in your diagnosis, but decisive in your execution.
In fact, cult-style culture enforcement is a culture virus in itself. My best advice here is:
- Remove emotion from the equation. A good culture like a river, not a hero or a villain - it just keeps going because that’s the way it is.
- Enforce your culture values (and fight culture viruses) more than you talk about them.
- Beware of, look for, and prevent people from using your culture as a way to complain or attack others. In general, always think of culture as a way to promote, not to punish; halting culture viruses isn’t foundationally about punishing, it’s just about stopping the behavior.