Why Your Startup’s Culture Is Secretly Awful

Startups love to talk about their culture and use it as a selling point, but product manager Shanley Kane contends that "culture is made primarily of the things no one will say." Every team’s culture consists of a submerged set of beliefs and values, priorities and power dynamics, myths, conflicts, punishments and rewards. Kane wrote a blistering critique of the official line on startup culture in a blog post called "What Your Culture Really Says" and went on to slaughter a few more sacred cows in "Five Tools for Analyzing Dysfunction in Engineering Culture." Co.Labs spent a merry hour quizzing her about power, unicorns, and founder myths.

Why did you write What your culture really says?

When I was in school, I took a number of cultural studies. I studied a little bit of philosophy and some gender studies. I had a very strong interest in that field, but never thought that it would be applicable to the real world. I was surprised when I started working, at how much all that stuff was relevant. I noticed in Silicon Valley, and the tech industry in general, that a lot of people were giving these talks about what their culture was and it was really superficial and focused on the privileged aspects of the company like free food and massages and all that stuff. I thought this was pretty destructive in terms of telling people that this is what culture is. It's much more serious and much deeper.

So what is culture, then?

Culture, especially a team culture or a technical culture, often involves how you choose or prioritize between multiple things which are good. The classic example is you are trading off shipping something quickly versus spending more time on it, making sure that it's perfect before you launch it. Those are both good things. Culture often has to do with which one of multiple good things we think is most important. Sometimes overemphasizing some of those good things can have a negative impact. One of the reasons that it can be difficult to unpack culture is because it involves making these very difficult choices between lots of things which, on their own, are good.

How is power a factor in startup culture?

Power dynamics are so critical to understanding your culture. One of the things which makes it especially difficult to examine startup culture is that we (in the startup world) are so against the idea that power is functioning inside our workplace at all. You see all these ways of operating startups that are based on not having managers, so there's no traditional power structure. It's part of our self-esteem in a way. It's part of our core identity that we say we don't have a traditional corporate structure and don't have these negative power roles in the workplace.

The problem is that power is an aspect of every human interaction, even if you don't have managers. When people say "we got rid of managers" they think "we don't have to think about, or deal with or critique power in the workplace." In places where there is no formal hierarchy, you actually have to pay more attention. We are really taught not to question power, not to question authority, not to critically examine power in the workplace. Fully addressing power in the workplace means that we have to develop healthy safe mechanisms and spaces to discuss it.

Are deadlines a form of management "microaggression"?

On the one hand, you absolutely have to have deadlines. Things need to ship. Things must move forward. But I have absolutely seen scenarios where deadlines are used as a power play to set up teams to fail. You have to look at who is coming up with the deadlines? Has the engineering team bought into the deadlines? Are they realistic? What ulterior motives might people making a deadline have?

In a negative power scenario, deadlines often come from outside the team that's actually creating the technology. Often the people who set deadlines don't understand the process of building software and all of the things that can go wrong. When deadlines get really destructive is when people outside the engineering team use deadlines to try to influence the engineering team, since they don't have any other means of doing so. Marketing departments who are like "We don't know how to work with the engineering team so instead of finding ways to productively work together, we are going to give them some date to deliver to make them move faster in order to incentivize them."

Who are the heroes of founder fairy tales?

At the risk of getting too simplistic, there are two types of people that are very much mythologized in the culture. One of them is someone who went to MIT or Harvard and has a strong engineering background. That's a very specific economic and often racial set of privileges.

But you also have this other type, which is the idea of the high school or college dropout who, despite that, has been programming since they were very young, is brilliant, a genius. It's an underdog story on the surface. Person dropped out, they didn't go that traditional path but have managed to make something of themselves. However, below the surface, these are people who were able to have access to well-paying jobs, they were people who had computers when they were very young, they had the time and access to resources to develop these talents. The high school dropout story is always the story of a white guy. You never hear about women who drop out of high school and go on to found companies. I think it's very interesting that even within that narrative of the dropout-hacker-redemption story you actually have a lot of privilege operating.

Why do all startup teams look alike?

Startups in San Francisco tend to be almost entirely white men. People who get funding tend to be white men. People who are able to take economic risks are white men. There's a number of startup programs and incubators out here who give a certain amount of money that is not really a living salary, but it can be enough for one individual to get by. There are a lot of people who can't take advantage of those opportunities: People who don't have parents subsidizing their living, people who have school debt, people who have families, who need to be able to support other people whether those are parents or children or a partner.

It's this fairly narrow class of person which has a certain level of economic stability that is able to take a risk like that. So we have set this idea that only a certain type of person with some degree of economic security, who has very little ties to the community or other people in that they can just go off on their own and pursue these projects, can found these companies.

The one thing I would really change would be to get more women and minorities into startups. Women, gay people, trans people, all kinds of different people. I think that would be the most transformative thing in startup culture.

What's the problem with "cultural fit"?

This idea that someone is not a culture fit functions both during the hiring process and when people are already in the company. I know a number of women who have been turned down from jobs because they "weren't a culture fit." I know a lot of people, not just women, but it seems that women are disproportionally affected. "Not a culture fit" is used as a reason to turn people down for a job. Once they are there, it's a way of kicking them out of the culture.

People will say "not a culture fit" without having to define what that means. It's almost this sacred space which lets them uncritically reject people from the company or from the team. On the surface level it tends to mean "We just don't like you. You're different from us. We don't want to figure out how to work with you." "Not a culture fit" gives us a really easy way to disregard your experience and you as a person.

How can unicorns be destructive?

In our industry we put a lot of value on this myth of the brilliant individual contributor who is coming up with ideas pretty much in complete isolation. Oftentimes this type of person is very charismatic and carries a lot of social weight on the team. I think the way that you see the unicorn function is that they are not necessarily tied to the formal structure of the organization in the way that other people in it are, and they won't have the same set of responsibilities and ongoing obligations that other people in the team have, because we are giving them time to think and be creative and wander around coming up with ideas. Because these people aren't necessarily sharing in the everyday work of the team they have more time to come up with these things and everyone else is trying to hold the business together so they don't have that critical time and space to be doing inventive work.

Also when the very thing we are mythologizing is that it is this one person who comes up with something in isolation, you are excluding the very notion of a team. But everyone wants to participate and contribute to the creation of new products. So pretending that it's a certain type of person sets up this very negative mythology that excludes a lot of people who are interested in that type of work.

How can companies start to examine their own culture?

In order to get people to see what their culture really is, you have to give them tools that help them to break down and analyze and see what's going on around them, the same as we learn from studies of representation. You go to a movie. A lot of people just see the movie, but some people have been trained to see the hidden messages about race and gender. How do we educate people about these hidden worlds and hidden messages?

One of the most obvious examples is that I just wrote a piece about women in technology and I got a few women leaving comments like "I don't experience sexism in the workplace." It's highly unlikely that they are somehow magically immune to sexism, it's just that they don't have the tools to see and understand what's going on.

One way to start people down this path is to get people to study Pop Culture studies. Tools like how do you examine what's going on as far as power dynamics? What do characters in this movie or fairy tale have in common? There are huge fields of study around these topics. How can we bring those tools and skills into the workplace? Why aren't we applying our same approaches to measurement and precision and all these things that we are using to build software, that we are using to build companies? Why is culture completely untouched by those means of inquiry?

[Image: Flickr user Stig Andersen]

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  • Hilsea

    Thanks the article, Ciara. I really like your definition of culture being the unspoken, I think that is very true, just brilliantly summarised.
    I'm not so sure your description of a unicorn matches what the rest of us (in IT) have... as it's usually someone with an unusual and highly sought after set of cross discipline skills (backend AND frontend dev, user experience AND user interface, visual designer AND frontend dev etc) these folks (and I include myself) work really hard and rely heavily on team inclusion rather than float in a special place inventing solutions :) Also, I don't like the term 'unicorn' as it sounds ridiculously special and really I think there are more of us around than we let on because it suits us to present one face for the gig most of the time :)

    I'm glad you also discuss the myth of the founder, having worked in that environment for a length of time it was a really interesting and at times a disturbing pull on the expectations of the company, and how it informed it's work/life balance and productivity incentives and reward system. Mainly that the obsessive actions of a couple of young (and single) individuals was always held up as a benchmark. I found it an unhealthy layer that formed a cult like mentality at times. Fortunately we refered to them by their first names which kept them human and real, unlike in some companies where they are simply "The Founders". 

  • zeeben

    (WARNING: I do know what paragraphs are, but this commenting system doesn't seem to allow line separaters!). Interesting article, and nice to have these kind of things said about a sphere I can relate to. It’s true (and hardly surprising) that when companies talk about their culture they mean something rather limited and superficial, but then so do most people when they talk about culture (apparently the French have lots of it (?!?)).It’s also true that a lot of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia (and other no less important such prejudices) is unconscious and subtle, but nevertheless has a real, substantial effect.I agree with nearly everything Kane said in the interview, but I would like to have a big old moan about her final answer, in which she uncritically extols the value of culture studies. A cultural analysis of a company, a book, a movie or whatever is one interpretation amongst an almost many possible interpretations, nothing more. It is not the Revealed Truth. It is certainly not the same kind of precise, unambiguous thing that building software is, as Kane implies (nor can it be, it’s just a very different kind of thing).Not very long ago, a Freudian analysis of culture was all the rage. Everything under the sun was to be interpreted in terms of our repressed desire to get jiggy with mummy or daddy. However, being able to think up an interpretation of something does not make it the correct interpretation. Freud’s theories have fared terribly when they’ve been tested scientifically. The basic tenets can’t be proven or disproven, so there’s always plenty of scope for his followers to continue seeing the world in light of their preferred framework. The same can be said of many other frameworks which claim to explain everything of significance: other psychoanalytic frameworks like Jungianism, all-encompassing political creeds like Marxism, all religions and many other ideologies.My point is that, if you’re not sceptical of your own beliefs, and they never have to come up against the ultimate test of scientific belief, it’s very easy to interpret the world however you like, be completely convinced if the correctness of that view, and never have an inkling that one day it will turn out to be a load of old bollocks.Culture studies are no different. In some ways, its claims go beyond being merely unsubstantiated into being quite obviously distorting. While it is true that no history, no description of anything, can be ever be a full, impartial description of reality, and all histories give a certain slant, culture studies takes this concept to a dishonest extreme. It degrades the accounts people give of reality to the status of “fairy tales”; as if they had no basis in reality, and were used only to shape reality, never to reflect it. At the same time, culture studies implicitly represents its own account as the One True Story; as if studying culture studies were the only way to see reality as it truly is, and as if culture studies itself was beyond being critiqued.I think a more honest form of culture studies would recognise that just because something is perceived as racist, sexist, classist, etc, doesn’t mean it is. For example, I have heard it earnestly claimed, by an intelligent and informed presenter of a tech podcast, that the reason the iPod originally came out in white, was to reassure consumers that it was basically a racially white brand. I don’t think it’s impossible that this was the case, but I think it should be acknowledged that there a lot of other possible explanations for why Apple settled on the colour white.Similarly, I recently came across an academic, in the field of culture studies, condemning a news article for describing a certain politician as passionate about her politics, on the grounds that it reinforced the stereotype of women as irrational hysterics. The same academic had made many incisive points about female politicians not being described and assessed in the same way as men (for example, journalists place much more emphasis is placed on their relationship with their family), but that does not make her point about the use of the word “passionate” equally convincing. It is an interpretation, neither proven nor disproven, and highly debateable.Kane asks “why aren't we applying our same approaches to measurement and precision and all these things that we are using to build software, that we are using to build companies?”. Unfortunately, she doesn’t be much concerned about measurement and precision when expounding her own theories. For instance, “it seems that women are disproportionately affected [by the notion of cultural fit]” is not a statement that has anything to do with measurement or precision. What things “seem like” is pretty much worthless when talking about statistics. I once read an article by a psychiatrist who claimed that all the gay men he had counselled had fathers who were inadequate in some way - too distant, too bullying, and suchlike. He was convinced there was a link - it was a pattern. Apparently, he hadn’t considered the possibility that he had fallen victim to confirmation bias - the tendency to perceive and remember whatever reinforces your worldview. He also failed to notice that all fathers are inadequate in some way. Most people have extremely multi-faceted personalities - look for a particular trait and you will find it somewhere.Left-wing students of cultural analysis are just as susceptible to confirmation bias as conservative psychiatrists, yet this is never acknowledged from within the discipline. It’s sad for a field that is supposed to be about unravelling these kinds of tricks of the mind. As it happens, I think it is very probable that women are disproportionately affected by the notion of cultural fit. However, I would still want to see some kind of real evidence (which anecdotes are not) before treating it as a reality. Likewise, it would be nice to be given some data when hearing a lazy assertion like “people who are able to take economic risks are white men”. At the very least, it would be nice if she applied precision and made the effort to say what I assume she actually meant: i.e. “people who are able to take economic risks are disproportionately likely to be white men”. If we got some quantitative insight into what the scale of that disproportional likelihood is, and how it compares with other groups, that would be amazing.The absence of measurement and precision from culture studies allows it to massively over-egg its claims. It implies that all inequality is due to racist/sexist/etc cultural systems. However a cursory glance at the actual data reveals that many ethnic minorities within white-majority societies, greatly exceed whites in terms of socio-economic achievement, even while they still face racism. The same appears to be true across all societies, not just white-majority ones, and over all historical eras. The dominant ethnic group always tends to aggregate privileges for itself, and yet there are always ethnic minorities who do disproportionately well for themselves, in spite of the racism they face. This makes no sense if all inequality is caused by racism. It is a fact that, as far as I know, is simply ignored within culture studies, presumably because it is too threatening to the preferred narrative of culture studies - that there are no differences between groups, in terms of their ability to attain socio-economic status, except those created by the white male hegemony. This belief is so integral to the core ideology of culture studies, that even to explicitly state it is taboo, because that turns it into a theory which can be questioned. Instead, it is treated as a given, something we all magically know to be true.Another example of culture studies’ tendency to exaggerate is its failure to acknowledge that while stories do shape reality, reality also shapes stories. For example, it’s (probably) true that the protagonists in startup founder stories are invariably male, partly because sexist expectations lead people to expect and favour stories about male founders. However, it also true that the protagonists in startup founder stories are invariably male because, well, startup founders are invariably male. A reality shapes a stereotype, and the stereotype helps reinforce the reality. It doesn’t help anyone to talk as if the relationship were only one-way.Well, I fear I’ve rambled excessively, but I don’t suppose anyone except a bored moderator will read this anyway, so who cares!? I know I’ve been critical of Kane, but I basically agree with all her main points, I am just very skeptical about how all-powerful these phenomena are, how easily they can be unambiguously “called out” and about the degree to which they constitute the whole story about why inequality between groups exist.For my own part, I’m happy to be working under a very talented and inspiring non-white female director, within an exceedingly likeable team that is 40% non-white. There’s definitely a hierarchy (and no pretense that it’s democracy of equals) and I guess I’m somewhere near the bottom of it, but as I’m treated with respect and basic sensitivity (unlike in some previous tech companies I’ve worked in), I’m really perfectly fine with that. I don’t have power, but I don’t have all the stress, posturing and over-work that tends to go with that.

  • deciara

    Wow - this must be the longest comment I have ever received and should actually be a blog post by itself. But really good points so thanks for taking the time to write it.

  • Keith Brings

    Hey for what it's worth I'm a multi-racial highschool drop out whose done fairly well for myself in the tech space.  Moving the lines of white privilege forward or something like that.

  • Jason Malikow

    Vague terms like "culture" and "fit" aren't very useful when we're talking about starting and growing a business, and this interview does a good job of questioning the phenomenon of "startup culture." A homogenized team may lead to internal stability, and it certainly makes it easier to recruit a new hire, but at the cost of creative tension, idea generation, and the flexibility needed to react in a fluid business environment.