High Growth and the Dangers of Culture Clash

September 21, 2023

culture clash employee surveys

Penguins clashing with each other

High-growth phases are exciting times for companies. These phases are often accompanied by significant momentum and buzz around the company, exciting new product launches, and increasing revenue. Hiring also picks up rapidly, with new employees being on-boarded and integrated into the teams regularly. With all the activity around hiring, it becomes increasingly important to focus on company culture. If you don’t, your run the risk of developing some culture clash issues, which can quickly become pervasive and result in some more insidious issues. After all, your company culture should be intentional; if you’re not actively defining it, you’re leaving it to the strongest and perhaps most negative influences among your employees.

When Does Culture Clash Occur?

Culture clash occurs when employees or groups of employees within a single company have different values, assumptions, and/or approaches. When a company is growing quickly, and it hires a lot of new employees, it becomes more difficult to maintain a cohesive company culture as all of the new employees bring along their unique work styles and expectations. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, as new employees can inject energy and new ideas into the company. However, it’s also important to align everyone around the company’s existing culture, or to be very intentional when you decide to adopt new cultural norms.

Mergers and acquisitions can also lead to culture clash issues. Because each company has its own culture, the acquisition of another company is by definition the acquisition of its culture. This can quickly lead to culture clash issues, particularly if the companies both have strong cultures to begin with; it’s difficult for both the acquirer and the acquired to adapt in these situations.

Culture clash can also result from subcultures that begin to develop within each business unit or team. For example, the Finance, Marketing, Sales, Customer Success, Product, and Engineering Teams may all begin to develop their own unique cultures that may or may not align with the overall company culture.

Another common culture clash scenario can develop when the senior leadership team has a different culture than the rest of the employees. In these scenarios, it’s common for the employees to think that the senior leadership is out of touch, and for the senior leadership to think that the employees are somehow not committed.

High-growth scenarios can exacerbate all of these potential sources of culture clash, as lots of new people are quickly injected into the company. Without a strong and intentional culture, some serious problems can begin to develop.

What Are The Dangers Of Culture Clash?

Culture clash can manifest in a lot of different ways. Some common issues are:

  1. Complaints about communication - Often, when teams are not collaborating well, employees will point to a lack of communication. This can be an early warning sign that there are cultural divides between the teams. If the problems persist, this can lead to silos developing, with teams walling themselves off from others, or pointing fingers when things go poorly.

  2. Reduced productivity - Culture clash issues can make it more difficult for teams to work together effectively. They may have different expectations around pace of work or communication styles which can lead to conflict. In addition to losing the efficiencies from a well-functioning team, time is also then spent diffusing issues or getting people aligned on purpose and culture.

  3. Loss of trust and cooperation - When teams are not aligned around culture, it is much easier to think that the other employees or teams are acting in bad faith. When this happens and employees lose trust in each other, the consequences can be severe. As we’ve discussed in a previous blog post about the importance of trust, trust and psychological safety are among the most important factors in high-performing teams.

  4. Decreased morale - If the company culture doesn’t align with their values, employees can begin to feel disconnected, frustrated, and unhappy. Employees are much less effective and productive when they are not engaged. Bad morale can also be contagious and affect other employees.

  5. Increased turnover - If employees are not fitting in with the culture, they may begin to leave. This may manifest with new hires struggling to adapt, which may signal a weak onboarding process. Onboarding is very important and instilling the company culture should be a part of that process. If new hires are turning over, it can be costly and a blow to company morale. However, long-term employees may also begin to turnover if there are culture clash issues. In that case, the company may be losing the employee and all of the institutional knowledge that will depart with her.

How Can Culture Clash Be Prevented?

The best way to prevent culture clash is to be very intentional about it. If you’re not actively defining your company’s culture, then you’re effectively ceding that power to the squeakiest wheels. Specifically, you should:

  1. Define and communicate your company’s culture - Work with your leadership team to define the company’s culture and write it down. Ensure that it’s easy to understand and then make sure you can communicate it clearly to all of the employees. Reinforce it often.

  2. Build a strong onboarding process - Make sure that the company culture is prevalent throughout the onboarding process. Dedicate time to explaining and communicating the culture. Additionally, try to reinforce your words with actions so that new hires are exposed to actions or events that reflect the company’s culture.

  3. Collaborate across teams and break down silos - Subcultures aren’t necessarily bad, as each team may have some unique values. However, these subcultures should align with the overall company culture. Encourage your teams to work across functions because it’s important for everyone to feel like they’re part of the larger company culture. By not allowing silos to develop, you’ll also build trust and cooperation across teams.

  4. Empower managers as cultural ambassadors - Ensure that your managers are aligned with the company culture, and that they can help to reinforce it with their teams. When all of the leaders within a company reflect the company culture, it becomes much easier to ensure that all of the employees will be aligned on the company’s values. Hold your managers accountable for instilling and promoting the company culture.

  5. Measure employee satisfaction - Check in with your team regularly to ensure that they are aligned with the company culture. If you detect any culture clash issues from these check ins, you can quickly take action to get things back on track.

Define Your Culture Before It Defines You

A company’s culture is critical to its success. This is especially true in high-growth situations where there’s a stronger potential for culture clash issues to arise. By being intentional about your company’s culture, you can avoid a lot of the serious issues that can develop. Suzanne Hyatt from Forbes sums it up nicely:

If you don’t take a thoughtful approach to developing a culture everyone buys into, one will develop without your input. The problem is that it may not be the type of culture you want and if that happens, it will affect everything from retention to your bottom line. Your people will follow the lead of managers or the voice of strong employees who claim to know what the company expects.

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