Some jerks never ask questions. They don’t ask how your day is going. They don’t ask for your input on a project. They certainly don’t ask you for permission to eat your yogurt in the office fridge that clearly had your name written on the label. These jerks have an obvious deleterious effect on morale.
Other jerks are of a more insidious variety. They have fantastic pedigrees and their work makes management view them as “high performers,” but they're secretly reviled by those they deal with on a daily basis. These jerks are far more often hired, promoted, and generally tolerated. That makes them more dangerous to your culture.
“High-functioning” jerks can slowly erode the culture of any company that hires them. But simply “screening out” jerks isn't enough—people can (to some extent) hide who they are in a job interview. You need to build a culture that actively promotes and celebrates the kind of person you want to work with. Our mission at Interana, for instance, is to spark a movement of curious people and help them build data-informed company cultures.
To do that, we need a team made up of curious people—people who can readily adapt others' ideas, collaborate, and deal with ambiguity. Curiosity is at the core of our DNA.
Our culture is not driven by trying to keep out jerks. We are building a culture that embodies our values. We look to hire people that will add to our work family and help it evolve as we grow. It just so happens that those types of people tend not to be jerks.
Caring about culture from day one
We believe culture starts on day one. The values and beliefs held by a company's founders lay the groundwork, but a culture that resonates goes beyond its leaders to include everyone.
When our founders started Interana, they had an idea of the type of culture they wanted, but they didn't hold a big meeting and announce, “Here are our values. Please conform to them.” Instead, they wanted to wait to see how the team worked together and discover the shared values that emerged through the experience of working together.
We started by asking, "Who are we, and what are the best parts of us working together?” We observed how our three founders worked together and then how each new employee added another layer to the experience. Developing the culture is a company-wide initiative and asking employees for their input was absolutely critical.
It took about a year before we solidified our core values and put them down on paper. By that time, everyone intuitively knew the values and how they were being expressed on a day-to-day basis. Our values were (and still are):
- We build products that wow: We believe the world is a better place when we have products that understand our needs better than ourselves and surprise us in unexpected ways.
- We are optimistic: We believe that we can pull together and build something that can have a real impact on the world, which takes courage, imagination and the belief that it is possible.
- We prize curiosity and learning: Building new technologies requires discovering new knowledge and learning how to apply it in compelling ways.
- We make each other successful: We can achieve more and have a bigger impact when we help each other succeed as a high-performing team.
- We make our customers superheroes: Great products result from making customers superheroes. In doing right by our customers, we do right by ourselves.
We look at our values frequently to see how we are doing, and monitor if they should change. It is important to be open to evolving. Our values are not chiseled in stone, but rather guiding principles that may change as we enter new phases.
Hiring for culture is just as important as skillset
The most common and possibly worst question someone can ask is: Is this person a cultural fit? If you are asking that question, you might need to reevaluate the purpose of your culture.
A culture should be dynamic and always evolving to something better. The only way to do that is by hiring people that bring something new and add value.
Your culture is not an exclusive, static thing that people fit into. The better question is: Would this person thrive in our culture?
The truth is that it is hard to figure out over the course of a few interviews if a candidate is going to embody your values or be a jerk. While a lot of it is intuition and observation, there are a few tactics and questions to try out.
- Have candidates eat lunch with the team. We like to conduct interviews during lunch so candidates can interact in a social setting. We train our employees on what questions to ask to help better assess a candidate's cultural compatibility.
- “Tell me about somebody great.” This is a great interview question to see how the candidate talks about other people. It demonstrates whether they can be humble or admiring of others, and for what reasons.
- Test their desire to learn. Our engineers sit and talk with candidates and can tell if a person does not want to learn anything. We have turned away amazing talent because of their arrogance.
Arrogant people are often charismatic but have a difficult time articulating their own weaknesses or faults. Asking them about failures and learning experiences tends to bring out a person's true nature.
Our core value of prizing curiosity helps us weed out potential jerks that aren't interested in being part of a collaborative team that strives for greatness together.
Cultivating helps the plants grow and the garden flourish
You can't force plants to grow in a garden. You create the best environment possible and cultivate the garden by removing the weeds and gently breaking the dirt's surface to improve water, air, and nutrient absorption. When the plants grow, the garden flourishes.
We take the same approach to growing and evolving our culture. Our goal is to give our employees all the resources and support necessary for them to develop professionally and as contributors to our mission. When our people grow, the company flourishes.
As a matter of fact, instead of performance reviews, we conduct growth conversations. Twice a year we sit down and ask questions like, “How are your responsibilities going? What are you learning? Where do you want to go personally, professionally? How can we support you? What's the path you want to take?"
We want people that will thrive in our culture first, and then we figure out together what the best path forward looks like. We often hire people that are smart and embrace learning, even if their skills don't fit an exact job description. When you find someone that will help your culture bloom in unexpected ways, work with them to find a role in the company.
In the same way that we try to cultivate our people to reach their full potential, it is also important that we always monitor the culture as a whole. We conduct employee focus groups and use survey tools to get feedback and learn where we can improve.
We want a dynamic culture, which means we constantly evaluate our values. “Which ones are true of us this past year? Where are we falling short?” If one of our values is no longer relevant, we might decide to prune it. On the other hand, if a value is still core to who we are, we find ways to breathe new life into it.
Can people love where they work?
Maybe it is because we are an optimistic bunch, but we believe it's possible to look forward to coming to work.
We treat each other like a second family. We spend a lot of hours together. We eat meals together. We play together. We work hard together. We also argue and fight, just like a normal family. The key to making it all work is that everyone embraces the same values.
When your company's values don't tolerate arrogance, you'll find that the jerks don't usually stick around.