Want your company culture to be stronger? Want people to value each other and work together?
Set some s*%^ on fire.
OK, I kid. I wouldn’t exactly advise actively creating a crisis. But I would advise (to paraphrase Rahm Emanuel) never letting a good crisis go to waste. Nothing replaces a good catastrophe for bringing a team together on new terms – not company events, perqs, swag, yoga, or all the trappings that have come to be known as “culture.”
Fortunately, crises are easy to find in small and fast-growing companies. Innovation is the mother both of new opportunities and new challenges. The trick is knowing how to respond when crises emerge. If you do things right, a team will come together to solve a problem.
In my own startup career, I have seen my fair share of challenges. But there was one challenge which brought our team together in a remarkable way. When our company experienced a round of layoffs, all but one member of our support team was let go from the company. In a fast-moving industry and a fast-growing technology space, customer issues come in fast, hot, and complicated. They did not slow down for this major change to our company structure.
Needless to say, we had a difficult problem on our hands. How can we continue to support customers on a much leaner diet?
As part of our new approach to support, the majority of the company – from development to sales engineering to marketing – was involved in answering customer requests. This helped us all to learn how to make our product better for customers, how to make our messaging better, and how to make the company better. But without our planning it, all-hands (or most-hands) support helped us to become a better team.
Crises strip out all the unnecessary things that build up walls between people, and they make us human. For my company, having to work together on customer support brought people together from different teams, different experience levels, different skill sets, and even different countries. If we weren’t taking and brainstorming together before, we certainly were once we had this common challenge. Whatever we had before, we were all beginners when it came to customer support. And it was one steep learning curve.
So over the next 2+ years we laughed, vented, freaked out, and worked together until we solved the problems or at least held them at bay. It was not easy, and often we found ourselves wishing it hadn’t fallen to us to do the (sometimes thankless) task of handling new problems every week. But ironically, we never were closer or more meaningfully connected than in the midst of challenges like that. That time created so many close-knit connections, great memories, and deep trusting relationships between unlikely colleague-friends.
We’re now fully staffed with a specialized support team, but we still benefit from the after-effects of our shared crisis. It is still powering the unity that new team members (who are blessedly ignorant of the Hard Times) are joining in on our mission. Many of us who now lead larger departments were bonded over the shared trauma and experience and fun and testing. We will work together now with a level of trust we would not have otherwise.
A big challenge for us as we go forward is to maintain what we gained from the support crisis. We’ll get to see in real time if we remember the lessons of history. And with any luck, we’ll have more positive things to bring us together. Crises are relative, after all. Pursue an audacious enough goal with limited-enough skills, resources, and time, and you can find the heroic crisis spirit in a constructive way.
Intellectual Influnces: Sebastian Junger’s Tribe has influenced my thinking about experiences with this phenomenon. He writes about the phenomenon of group cohesion and psychological wellbeing in the face of shared enemies. I highly recommend the read. He speaks about the effects of war in creating a kind of strange nostalgia both in the veterans and civilians who experience war’s effects. The same holds true for other kinds of disasters:
“Adversity often leads people to depend more on one another, and that closeness can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to.”