Why and how to build a sustainable culture in the transition from startup to scaleup

Have you heard this saying, “When in Rome, do as Romans do it.”? What does it mean to you? To me, it says that when you go to a particular place, you should expect to meet people who behave in a certain way. 

Romans had tendencies of conquering territories and engaging in bacchanalia. Assuming you can travel back in time to be one of the Romans, you know what to expect about how you’d be spending most of your time, right? Fighting or drinking wine. 

How about your growing start-up? What kind of behaviours do people expect to find in your company?  


Why does culture matter?

Working cultures matter for organisations of all sizes because they shape expectations about social interactions and activities. Especially for startups, culture matters to consolidate the company identity. The chosen set of core principles communicates what the company stands for to outsiders – clients, suppliers and potential future employees. But to develop a sustainable culture, which is flexible to the growth needs of the company, it is important to have an internal focus.

Building healthy work relationships, – both among founders and between founders and the people in different expert roles -, can be a differentiating success factor. Not having the right team, with a diverse skills set, is the top 3 factor of startup failure in the postmortem study of 101 startups by CBINSIGHTS


What is the key element of a sustainable culture?

Having the right team means more than establishing complementary expert roles. It also requires building effective ways to work together as a team. What kind of environment do your people need to focus individually on their tasks and when needed, collectively? 

How would you feel if every Monday, you feel that you are on your way to spending time with your second family? Where you want to give your best and should you make any mistake, you can rely on others to step up and help you out. And on a Friday evening, when you go for a drink with friends, you can candidly say, “In our company, I like that we do things this way.” 

All these scenarios point to a work environment of belonging, psychological safety and honesty. Now, it’s highly likely that in the first 4 years, founders focus their attention on how to validate their product and find funding. Any business mind would agree with these two priorities. If you cannot have a competitive product to sell, there’s no business to run. 

Strengthening the product attractiveness on the market is the shared responsibility of the team. Yet, the development of work relationships needs to have equal priority in the journey from startup to scaleup. 

When performing complex cognitive tasks, such as effortful logic and reasoning, people who were told they would end up alone in life performed worse than people who were told they would have rewarding relationships through life, as shown in a 2002 study by Roy Baumeister and his research team. However, for simple information processing tasks, there was no difference in performance between the people who would envision a future alone or part of a social group. The more complex problems at the decision-making table, the higher the need of a community like feeling.

Beyond the accumulated experience and knowledge, we are wired for belonging, appreciation, and autonomy . We are more likely to trust and like someone whom we perceive as being one of ours. Moreover, our brains have evolved to pay attention to possible threats for a longer time and have a shorter attention span on what goes well in the environment. When good things happen, say a praise, a reward or engagement in a meaningful task, we bask in positive emotions. We might be joyful and playful on the first day following a raise. The next day, should we feel we are being micromanaged by our boss or an in-house senior, we forget about the joy and all we can think of is how we are being constrained from making our own choices. Our ability to focus on problem solving decreases.

Cultures are being shaped by the people and human relationships being developed during the everyday work. In order for the culture to be a fertile ground for the business development, now and then it’d be beneficial to dedicate enough time to openly talk about how people recognise psychological safety and belonging. And how everyone can contribute to the aspired culture.

A working culture is sustainable when the diversity of abilities, values and behaviours becomes familiar to people and thus both founders and experts can agree on what it means to interact effectively. 

Inclusive creativity for prototyping

Why: Most of the time, individuals wait for their leaders to identify problems with innovation potential. 

What: Believing in your creative ability can boost the confidence in taking initiative and proactively seek potential changes or opportunities. In particular, individuals with non-creative roles may perceive themselves non-creative.  

How: Inclusive creativity could play an important role in developing working habits that lead to change and innovation. Preparing the ground for the manifestation of inclusive creativity can be done in two steps. 1. Get a common agreement on the meaning and importance of creativity for innovative performance. 2. Allow expressions of individual creative strengths for continuous innovation.

If you are in charge of the innovation strategy in your company, who are the professionals you’d like to have in your team? What roles and skills should they have? 

Some people have a technical role. Others have a non-technical role. 

Some people are extroverts. Others are introverts.

Some people may be good at executing while others may be good at strategic thinking.

Once you selected your people, of diverse expertise and skills, how could you support them to proactively seek potential problems, changes or opportunities? When it comes to the discovery of new problems to investigate for innovation purpose, creative thinking plays an important role.  

The application of innovation methods, such as Lean, Design Thinking or TRIZ, are useful but not sufficient guides for innovation. For innovation to happen, individuals need deep knowledge, useful methodologies and the desire to get out of the comfort zone and experiment with new ideas originating from insight. Insight happens after being immersed into a problem for an extended period of time, when an unconscious idea makes it to the surface of consciousness. Insight, not a particular innovation theory or methodology, is the real competitive advantage reflected in a prototype solution.  

Every human brain has a creative function. When an individual is engaged in an open-ended task, the executive attention network, the default mode network and the salience network are the three brain networks that get activated at different stages of the creative process. When there’s no way to tell we’ve arrived at a suitable solution, we face an ill-structured problem, which is precisely the kind of problem we’re dealing with when we want to innovate. In the attempt to ask new questions and identify novel problems, divergent and hypothetical thinking are set in motion. However, some highly skilled professionals may limit themselves from engaging in activities that boost these creative thinking skills because they don’t perceive creativity to be part of their professional identity.  

Depending on our sense of identity, previous experiences and influences in the socio-cultural environment, we may have one or more of the following four relationships with creativity: 

  1. “I’m not a creative person, in general.” 
  2. “I enjoy to express emotions and thoughts in my free time, which helps me connect with other like-minded people.”
  3. “I have an artistic talent that helps me have a hobby and create works of art, music, arts, drama, etc. “
  4. “My creativity helps me stand out through original ideas and perspectives on problems at work”.

Leaders have the power to influence the way their people value and use creativity at work. It is a matter of leadership choice, whether to acknowledge or not the creative skills of the people who, directly or indirectly, are involved with innovation. The choice to encourage in-house experts to think and act in creative ways implies that leaders believe in creativity to be important for getting innovative ideas. The effect of such choice is twofold. 

First, by saying yes to creativity, leaders may initiate discussions about what organizational efforts would be suitable to encourage the creative-self belief in the experts who may not strongly identify as creative individuals. 

Second, both the more creative and the less creative individuals could have the freedom to create a space to experiment and purposefully exercise creative strengths, like openness to experience, imaginary skills, insight-related abilities or selling creative ideas.

This is the inclusive creativity, the organizational value that recognizes the individual’s creative ability to tackle open-ended problems, irrespective the essence of a specific professional role has a creative nature or not.



How to Respond to the Early Signs of Vulnerability to Boost Psychological Safety

“I might as well shut up because you people don’t get me. I must be stupid.” These were the frustrated words of one participant in a training I conducted some time ago. My role was to guide the participants in developing their entrepreneurial competence. We were brainstorming on how to bring the participants’ entrepreneurial ideas to life when the angry participant – let’s call her Julia – made the comment.

A long silence followed. As the silence was prolonging, Julia became anxious and started collecting her stuff from the working table.

“Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.” I replied. “It seems we have a misunderstanding. The good thing is that we are all here to learn and maybe help others get insights. How about you explained your concern one more time? Maybe in a different way this time?”

Julia straightened her posture and continued the dialogue. She attended the training till the last workshop. Thanks to her, I became aware that vulnerability is at the heart of a psychologically safe environment. To signal to others around you that you are emotionally wounded, you must take a leap of faith and trust that they will care about your affliction.

The psychologically safe environment is gradually and effortfully created thanks to those participants who are the first ones to dare to speak about their concerns and perceived personal limitations to reach a goal. Should the audience be insensitive, you withdraw like a tortoise in your shell. But if the audience is showing that they care, you accept that you have a shell to carry and maybe start planning alternative paths forwards your destination point. As for Julia, by the end of the course, she got empowered to start looking for a team with which she could build a start-up.

To cultivate an authentic culture of vulnerability, positive and responsive relationships are needed to help the group members realize that others can be trusted. Here are three key elements to create responsive relationships between leaders and members of the group:

  • Exercise empathy – Look beyond the possible signs of hostility or dislike and bring to awareness the journey of the respective person. What kind of experiences might she have had recently, which influenced her perception and interpretations of what’s going on in the group?

During my short interactions with Julia, I came to understand that she was going through a rough patch. Her mind was cluttered by the indecision of going entrepreneurial, as a single mother in a country, which was not her native country.

Moreover, she had joined the entrepreneurial course somewhere in the middle. Hence, she may have felt occasionally that she didn’t belong to the group.

  • Communicate with clarity – First, show appreciation for others’ courage to speak up about perceived flaws. Second, remind the interaction rules of the team. For example, when I start a new training, I dedicate 15 minutes discussing the rules we’ll play by. And three of the rules are to be kind and constructive with others, and honest to your emotions and thoughts. In moments of possible conflict, I bring out to attention the expectation to respect the rules. Third, keep focus on the common goal of the group and what is the problem that each individual wants to solve.
  • Reciprocate others’ vulnerability with your vulnerability. Initiate one-to-one conversations with the person who dared to talk about her vulnerability. The intention is to form a candid connection and concomitantly be mindful to send other signals establishing your competence. (Adam Grant, 2014, Give and Take, Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.)

At the end of the workshop, I had a chat with Julia to get to know her equally much as I knew the other participants. How did she feel about being a mother? What drove her into looking into other career options?

At some point during our chat, I told her I sometimes feel I’m not communicating clearly enough. Whenever I feel that way, I’d go ahead and say “I’m sorry. Please let me rephrase.” I thus related to Julia’s feelings by admitting I can also fail in getting others. At the same time, I shed light on my purposeful and constant focus on formulating my sentences so it can be easier for my audience to understand me. (Heidi Grant Halvorson, 2015, No One Understands You and What to Do about It).

Julia’s spirit livened up. So did mine.

In personal interactions, in between the seconds of disconnection and connection, we have the fleeting pause of vulnerability. Maintaining a good level of sharing doubts, frustrations, and anxiety in a group resumes to the hard task of being sensitive and taking a break to stay with the vulnerability instead of going ahead with the next topic on the agenda. Through empathy, clear communication and reciprocated vulnerability, group leaders can influence the engagement of members to do the best work that they can possibly do.

What To Focus On When Taking Employee Perspective

Why Perspective-Taking is a Must-Have Skill for Managers


According to Business Insider, empathy ranks second on the list of top 10 skills that are worthwhile but hard to acquire in order to be successful at work. We are all naturally wired for empathetic thinking, but it takes conscious effort to further develop this innate ability; it requires directing our attention towards other people’s feelings and experiences. The good news is that as empathetic habits become hard wired in the brain, the amount of required conscious effort diminishes.

In 2010, doctors at a Boston hospital took part in empathy training in which they were advised to: pay greater attention to the expressions on their patients faces, listen closely to voice modulations, and incorporate other small changes into their interactions with patients, such as facing the patient rather than the computer screen during the consultation. After the three hour training session, the doctors who took part reported higher empathy levels. One of the doctors declared that in the beginning it was difficult to empathise with the patient and at the same time to make her diagnosis, but eventually it “became fun” and the interaction with the patient reminded her of her initial drive towards medicine.

David Deming of Harvard University considers empathy, among other social skills, to be increasingly important for a variety of jobs, not only health care workers, therapists and others at the interface with customers also benefit greatly. Empathy is also important for software engineers and managers especially, in workplaces where collaboration is required.

If managers desire to lead a team that contributes positively to the higher profitability of the company it is vital to understand what helps employees succeed and what circumstances may prevent them from succeeding.

An empathetic manager better divides tasks between team members to fulfill the mission that the company stands for. When they further develop the ability to understand the values and opinions of the staff, managers can then engage in a productive dialogue about what employees actually want to do to reach their goals.   

So just how many managers are taking the empathetic approach? Despite the recognized benefits of empathetic leadership, a 2016 study shows that individuals in high power are not inclined to take others’ perspectives. Instead, they have a tendency to focus more on the resources they can control rather than on seeing the world from the perspective of others around them. 

The need for empathy is reflected also by a Gallup report of employee engagement in workplaces in more than 140 different countries. It reveals that only 13% of employees are motivated to develop professionally, creatively, and take initiative to contribute at work.

Four Focus Areas When Perspective-Taking

Here is a summary of findings compiled from neuroscience and positive psychology research that highlight particular key aspects on which managers should focus when engaging in the employee perspective.  

1.Use of emotional labelling


Business people can be  reluctant to speak about their emotional experiences, especially the negative ones, because they incorrectly predict that it would only make the emotions worse. Quite the opposite, research shows that labelling emotions reduces arousal in the brain’s limbic system  and inclines working memory towards cognitive thinking. In this way, creative answers to questions such as: “How can I motivate this person to work towards his/her goal?” are found.


2.Belonging in the workplace


Brain scans of people who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work show activation of  the same areas associated with physical pain. Badly managed employees can suffer and show lower work performance, ultimately adding to low business results in the long-run.

A sense of belonging in the workplace is developed by positively relating to and identifying with others in it. Daily interactions between managers and employees provide opportunities to reinforce  a positive message about what the team stands for and in what ways the employee sense of self is reflected in it.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that a  sense of belonging to the group may be slightly different for team members from distinct home cultures. Individualistic cultures, like those of Western Europe or USA,  place a high value on having a sense of control. When employees from such cultures feel that they have choices they experience more joy, excitement, and happiness.

As a manager of a culturally diverse team, it is best to make an individual employee assessment of the importance of the sense of control over one’s work. For the employees from individualistic cultures, even if you are in a power position, it is best to allow them to organize their own work, within the boundaries of what is allowed in the organizational culture. Research has shown that in stressful situations, when people have choices, they don’t feel much stress. However, with employees from collectivist societies, it’s good to take the perspective of how they think. For example, in Asian countries, people have a more societal orientation in their thinking and may perform better when their boss gives them specific tasks on what is expected and how they could go about achieving it.


3.Positive mood and creativity at work


A study published in Psychological Science shows that employees who experience a positive mood at work show increased cognitive flexibility compared with the employees who experience negative or neutral moods.

In the daily interactions between managers and employees the way managers choose to communicate can directly improve the wellbeing of their employees. Managers who express empathy have employees who report less somatic symptoms and stronger daily progress towards goals.

The feeling of a job well done boosts  good mood. People do a better job when they have the chance to exercise their strengths in accordance with the tasks assigned. An empathetic manager needs to know three things about the employees they interact daily with: their strengths, the triggers that activate their strengths – like, what kind of acknowledgement and praise to give -, and their learning style.

Employees tend to be in a better mood when they feel they can predict outcomes. A small amount of uncertainty can feel pleasant, but too much uncertainty can be stressful. The manager who is skilful at perspective taking is sensitive to employees’ level of coping with uncertainty. For example, when requesting a meeting, time should be taken to explain what the meeting is about, what the employee needs to prepare, and what they can  expect to get from the meeting.


4. Fairness and decision making  

The human brain loves fairness. Managerial decisions are constantly and automatically being monitored for fairness by group members. Although members of the group perceive fairness of decisions differently, managers could contribute to an overall sense of fairness in two ways. First, by taking time to explain to employees why a decision was made. Second, by actively listening to the opinions and possible concerns of those who are affected by the decision.  


In your managerial experience, which one of these four aspects do you naturally focus on when interacting with others?