How “inappropriate” organizational culture may contribute to the failure of a startup

After nearly 3 years of operating , the startup software company that I had been working for was shut down in January 2013. The main reasons were that our product failed to get users and we couldn’t make any money while millions of dollars had been spent on the company of which size might be too large for a startup. In my opinion, the root causes of our company’s failure were not that straight forward, instead they were the combination of many factors: the people, the business model, the management, the absent of lean startup approach and also the organizational culture. In this post, the impact of organizational culture to the failure of a startup may be revealed via the analysis that I sent to the founder of the company and my boss, the VP just a few days before it was shut down. For the reason of anonymity, real names will not be used in this post (they are in the original version of my analysis). The company will be mentioned here as SK and people name will be changed to something like A, J or K.

So here it is:

An organizational culture analysis for SK

1. Purpose and Scope
Starting from May 2011, I have been working for SK for nearly two years. Being a project manager also gives me an advantage: having opportunity to work directly with all delivery teams as well as with all levels of staff, ranging from Executive to middle managers and down to team members. With those experiences and the knowledge in organizational behavior, I have realized that SK currently have some issues with its organizational culture. Trying to be responsible, I feel an obligation to reflect those issues via this analysis. It is very important to understand that this analysis is not meant to be offensive to SK as well as to any of its employees. Names are mentioned just because they can provide detailed and specific examples. This analysis is presented purely for contributing and constructive purpose: to help SK to identify and analyze its problems in order to become a better, healthier and more effective organization.

In terms of scope, since I work mostly within the tech teams, this analysis will focus mainly on the tech teams. However, this is still valuable due to the fact that tech teams represent a significant majority of SK. In addition, the solutions suggested in this analysis may not cover all of the issues.

2. SK: Still a startup
First of all, it is very important to confirm whether SK is still a startup or not because appropriate strategic plan, organizational culture and structure of a startup are significantly different from a big cooperate. With more than 3 years old and over 100 employees, SK, in my opinion, is still a startup for the following reasons:
  • Its products and services have not been officially released yet.
  • It does not have a large number of users or customers.
  • And most importantly, it is still searching for a repeatable and scalable business model. As long as the organization is still figuring out how to make money, it is a startup by the most common definition of startup.
3. A first glance at SK’s seven key dimension of organizational culture
Organizational culture is something people talk about all the time and so do us at SK. Unfortunately, not everyone can understand clearly what exactly organizational culture is and especially how to identify, measure or characterize it. By definition, organizational culture is a set of basic beliefs and assumptions that are shared by members of an organization, showing them what are appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. In other words, organizational culture is basically “how we do things around here”. There are several approach to identify and “measure” organizational culture and the one that is used here is called the “seven key dimensions of organizational culture”, which are:
  • Individual autonomy: the level of responsibility, independence and empowerment that an individual has in the organization.
  • Structure: the number of rules and regulations, the number of hierarchical levels in the organizational structure.
  • Support: the degree of assistance provided by managers to their subordinates.
  • Identification: the level of pride that members have to be part of the organization.
  • Performance reward: the degree to which reward allocations (promotions, salary increases, bonus…) are based on performance criteria.
  • Conflict tolerance: the level of conflict exists in the relationships between members of the organization.
  • Risk tolerance: the degree to which employees are encouraged to be aggressive, innovative, and risk seeking.

So now we agree that SK is still a startup despite of its age and size, let’s have a quick look at the high level of its organizational culture to see if the culture is appropriate for a software startup company or not:

Individual Autonomy
  • Expected: High
  • Actual: Low to Medium
  • Details: Low level of individual autonomy is demonstrated by the presence of micromanagement, centralized decision making and lack of empowerment. One possible reason for this is the lack of trust between managers and staff, which will be discussed in details later.
  • Expected: Low
  • Actual: Medium and increasing
  • Details: The company does not have a lot of rules and policies comparing to big cooperate and this is good for a startup. However, the organizational structure may not be flat any more due to the fact that we have 5 levels of hierarchy from the CEO to a developer and very narrow span of control (a lot of managers/leaders manage just a few subordinates). In addition, decision-making is usually centralized and the number of rules and policies are increasing. Generally speaking, the Structure dimension is now medium but it now has the tendency to increase to High, which make us become more and more bureaucratic and that is definitely not healthy for a startup.
  • Expected: High
  • Actual: Low to Medium, varied from managers to managers
  • Details: Staffs rarely seek help from managers and hence, managers also rarely help staffs. One possible reason for this is the lack of trust between managers and staff, which will be discussed in details later.
  • Expected: High
  • Actual: Low
  • Details: This used to be high in the past but it has dropped significantly. Nowadays, fewer and fewer employees are proud of being part of SK. This can be explained by two reasons:
    • We haven’t had successful products for a very long time
    • Our environments (including organizational culture) become less and less healthy and attractive.
Performance Reward
  • Expected: High
  • Actual: High
  • Details: We are definitely performance oriented. A lot to extrinsic motivations are offered such as salary raise, month bonus and stock options. However, we should also consider offering more intrinsic motivations to the staff. In addition, we should also review our performance appraisal system to make sure that it is accurate, fair and actually motivate the employees in the way that we want them to.
Conflict Tolerance
  • Expected: Moderately High
  • Actual: Uncontrollably High
  • Details: Conflicts are healthy when they are related to work, encourage creativity and are not personal conflicts. However, I would say that we are failing to control and moderate this dimension of the organizational culture. Conflicts at SK become more and more personal and they start to have negative impacts to the company. More details about this will be discussed later.
Risk Tolerance
  • Expected: High
  • Actual: Medium and decreasing
  • Details: As a startup software company, we should have a high level of risk tolerance to and try and find our repeatable and scalable business model. However, it seems to me that we are becoming more and more risk-averse. We start to think more like a big cooperate that is reluctant to changes and looks for stability. In my opinions, having too many development environments, too many deployment policies and not trying feature-teams as well as not trying Kanban for DFS team are some examples of risk-averse.

4. A closer look at organizational culture issues at SK: The top three critical ones
So those are the seven key dimensions of SK’s organizational culture at the high level. In this section, I would like to look at specific issues that we have at SK in more details. Here are the top three that are the most critical ones in my opinion:

Lack of trust:
In my opinion, this is the most critical issue that we have at the moment and it is the root cause of many other issues. At SK, we can these signs of the absence of trust:
  • People usually try to show that they are better than the others. They rarely, or never, share about their weaknesses.
  • People avoid admitting the mistakes that they make.
  • People hesitate to offer help outside their own areas of responsibility or provide constructive feedback to others.
  • People doubt other’s skills and commitment.
  • People avoid meetings or spending to work on an issue together, thinking that is a waste of time.
  • People jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify them.
  • People are reluctant, or refuse, to share performance goals with others.
  • Micromanagement is popular.
As we can see, lack of trust occurs in every interaction between and within teams. Examples can be found everywhere:
  • S. doesn’t trust the developers in terms of their skills, productivity and commitment.
  • Server team doubts Q.’s skills and understandings about the product.
  • A. doesn’t think that K.’s design is good.
  • A is concerned about J.’s skills and working attitude.
  • Server team doesn’t want to have meetings or work together, thinking that is a waste of time.
  • J. and Server team refuse to share team goals together.
  • …. and many more

No one should be blamed in these cases. It’s not S.’s fault to not to trust the Server developers and vice versa. But why does this happen? What are the root causes of the lack of trust at SK?

There is actually a model for trust, which says that trust between two parties is influenced by ten factors. Using this model for trust, here are some of the reasons that can explain the lack of trust at SK, listed from the most to the less important ones:
  • Lack of capability: People only trust those who are capable to fulfill the expectation of the trust. You cannot trust a person if he does not have the capability, no matter how many similarities, aligned interests and benevolent concern that he has. At SK, lack of capability is the explanation for most of the absence of trust. In most case, one party doesn’t *think* that the other have enough skills and commitment to fulfill the expectation of the trust. Please note that the lack of capability of the “trustee” is just the *assumption* of the “truster”. Whether the “trustee” is lack of capability or not is another issue. This is related to the second reason, which is:
  • Lack of communication: This can also lead to the absence of trust in many cases, especially between different teams or between people that have different native languages.    Lack of communication also leads to wrong assumption about other’s capability and attitude. Lack of communication also prevents the truster and trustee from acknowledging the similarities between them.
  • Lack of similarities: Lack of similarities in terms of working style, working attitude, norms and expectations can also sometimes explain the absence of trust, especially between employees of different ethnic groups.
  • Lack of benevolent concern: Our recruitment criteria is to hire only the “A players”. Whether all of our employees are the “A players” or not is another issue but there is a fact that most of them have quite big ego. As long as people are not willing to sacrifice their benefits or put themselves at risk for the others, it is very less likely for them to be able to gain trust from the others.
Lack of trust can have more critical impacts than we think. Lack of trust can be the root cause of other issues:
  • More micromanagement and lack of empowerment, which in turn leads to the failure of creating self-managed and self-organized teams. This is caused by the lack of trust that managers have to their subordinates.
  • Bureaucratic structure and decision-making.
  • Low level of support. This is caused by the lack of trust that subordinates have to their managers.
  • Unhealthy conflicts and personal conflicts
  • Stressful working environment
  • Demotivation
  • People become more risk-averse
Conflicts are not controlled and moderated:
Conflict itself is not a bad thing. Conflict is healthy for an organization when it is work-related conflict that can lead to new ideas, stimulate creativity and motivate changes. However, conflicts need to be moderated and controlled so that they do not become personal and cause negative consequences:
  • Increase stress and anxiety among individuals, which decreases productivity and satisfaction
  • Lack of trust between team members
  • Increase hostility and aggressive behaviors
  • Increase turnover
Unfortunately, conflicts at SK are not controlled and moderated properly. Some of them became personal and had some of the negative consequences as listed above. Here are some examples of conflicts at SK:
  • The conflict between N. and T., which led to the fight that made both of them fired.
  • The conflict between A. and J.
  • The conflict between J. and Server team
  • The conflict between A. and Server team. This was resolved when A. left the Server team
  • The conflict between me and J. regarding to API deployment
  • The conflict between M. and T., which led to T. leaving SK
  • The conflict between M. and new iOS developers in HCMC office, which led to M. resigning
  • The developing conflict between A. and K.
  • … and there can be more
So what are the root causes of those conflicts? There can be many but here are the top three in my opinion:
  • Lack of trust: Again, there is a correlation between conflicts and the absence of trust.
  • Unresolved conflicts in the past: This reason can be seen in all cases when the consequence of the conflicts is extreme (people get fired, people resign). N. and T. wouldn’t fought each other if their existing conflicts had been resolved earlier. Same thing could happen to M. and T.
  • Differences in personalities, culture, working style, working attitude and expectations.

What I am more concerned about is the fact that we do not pay enough attention to moderating and controlling conflicts, giving them the freedom to become personal conflicts that lead to negative consequences for the organization.

Organizational culture is not officially defined and shared:
At SK, we usually talk about organizational culture but the fact is that it is not officially defined by the company and shared transparently to all employees. The company is lack of rules, policies or guidelines to enforce organizational culture. As a result, different employees and different teams have different understanding and beliefs in terms of which behaviors are appropriate and which are not. Here are some examples:
  • D. and A. think that going to the office at noon is totally fine while some of the others (including me) don’t think so.
  • H. thinks that having a 1.5 hours lunch, playing foosball and enjoying massage at this time (preparing for SXSW) is inappropriate whereas many others think it is totally fine.
  • For A., being aggressive and interrupting people in meeting is normal but this can be offensive to some people.
Not having an officially defined and united organizational culture also lead to the following issues:
  • Our culture is weak due to the fact that different parts of the company have different beliefs and shared values.
  • New recruited employees are fit into only part of the culture and they may amplify culture fragmentation.
  • The company is reluctant to removing people who are not culture fit due to the fact that no official and united culture is defined.
5. Other less significant issues
So those are the top three critical ones. There are also other issues that are less significant but they may be worthy to be mentioned briefly here:
  • One of our top recruitment criteria is to hire only the “A players” but we may not be sure about:
    • Are they actually the A players?
    • Can they work together?
  • Most of our employees are smart. Unfortunately, smartness usually comes with arrogance and big ego. From what I observe, our culture is lack of “learning from others” attitude, which is quite important for a startup that want to grow.
  • Since I started at SK, there have been consistent joke (within the Vietnamese staff) saying that it is very normal in our culture to bragging but not actually doing and those who can talk big (about solutions, planning, achievements, etc…) are usually highly evaluated. It is just a joke but it is worthy to consider.
  • It seems to me that we don’t have a culture that encourages taking responsibility or accountability when things go wrong, partially because some roles may have unclear or overlapped responsibilities. A culture that avoids blaming can be good in some cases but I think it is more professional to encourage taking responsibility or accountability when things go wrong, especially when it is well defined.

6. Some suggestions to make things better
Basically, in most cases, the solutions are kinds of embedded inside the issues themselves: Do what we should do, stop doing what we shouldn’t and fulfill what we are lack of. Here are some suggested solutions for the issues that we have at SK, focusing on the top three critical ones:

To build trust among team members:
  • Encourage team lunch or one-on-one lunch for team members to communicate and know more about the others. Such events will help team members to share about themselves and learn from the others in many topics: background, family, education, hobbies, strengths and weaknesses. From there they can realize their similarities and the capabilities of the others, which can increase the likeliness of trust, as discussed in Hurley’s model for trust. From my experience, one-on-one lunch is more effective than team lunch for this purpose. People tend to share more about themselves when they are one on one with another, but not in a big group.
  • Setup funny quizzes that reveal team members’ individual information (such as hobbies, skills, education, past experience, strengths and weaknesses…) and have rewards for the winner. This encourages team members to know more about each other and people tend to trust others who they know more about.
  • Organize team building activities that encourage trust and collaboration between team members such as:
    • Paintball: Make sure that the trusters and trustees are in the same team
    • Rock climbing: One team member relay for another and vice versa. Make sure that team members know how to relay and follow all safety instructions.
  • Schedule days when team members work together in pair to know more about others’ strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, working in pair also helps team members to experience the feeling of “achieving something together”, which make it easier to build trust between them.
  • Consider the last option: If there is no way that we can trust the existing people then replace them with those who we can trust.
To solve the issues of unhealthy conflicts:
  • Build up trust within the company
  • Make it clear to all employees that personal conflicts are not normal within the organization and it is unacceptable to keep those conflicts unresolved.
  • Managers should identify personal and unhealthy conflicts as soon as they arise and try to address them immediately.
  • Encourage using communication to solve conflicts.
  • Relocate people is also a possible solution.
  • Removing people from the team/company can also be considered as one of the last options. The key here is to come to this decision actively and early, before the conflicts cause more damages to the organization.
To have a strong organizational culture:
  • Define an organizational culture that is aligned with our strategic plan and make it transparent to all employees.
  • Build up policies, rules or guidelines that enforce organizational culture.
  • Train the employees about our expected organizational culture and make it transparent in terms of which behaviors are appropriate and which are not by using examples.
  • Have a consistent process and criteria for evaluating culture fit of our job candidates.
  • Willing to get rid of people who do not fit into the expected culture. The longer we keep them, the more damage they cause to our culture.
Some others:
Build an organizational culture that encourages:
  • Empowerment
  • Risk tolerance to experience new solutions and processes
  • Learn from others
  • Walk the talk
  • Take responsibility and accountability when things go wrong
7. Conclusion
In conclusion, this analysis shows that some parts of the existing organizational culture at SK are not appropriate for a startup software company, which is the current state of SK. The analysis also suggests three issues that need to be addressed immediately in order to create a healthy culture:
  • Lack of trust
  • Conflicts are not controlled and moderated
  • Organizational culture is not officially defined and shared
It should also be noted that the analysis itself also has some limitations:
  • It may be subjective due to the fact that it is reflected from my point of view only.
  • It focuses mainly on the issues rather than the solutions.
  • It does not address the other good parts of SK’s organizational culture.

Despite those limitations, this analysis can also be served as a good starting point to systematically identify the organizational culture issues that SK currently has, which is the first and important step to find the appropriate solutions. While a healthy culture may not be vital for some companies to be functional, it is, however, quite essential for SK, a startup that wants to be a big success. Sometimes, great product can only be built by a great organization.

Empowerment in organizations

1. Introduction
In organizations, empowerment means granting employees the autonomy to assume a more active and responsible role. This is accomplished by strengthening their sense of effectiveness as well as by sharing power, information and the responsibility to manage their own work as much as possible. In terms of organizational culture, empowerment is related to the Individual Autonomy dimension.

2. The pros and cons of empowerment
But why should we empower our employees? Here are some benefits that empowerment may bring to organizations:
  • Improves communication and decision making
  • Improves morale, motivation and commitment
  • Creates “ownership” of the job
  • Increases job satisfaction
  • Increases risk-taking and innovation
  • Improves relationships with customers and suppliers
  • Reduces layers of management
On the other hand, empowerment may also have some negative effects:
  • Not everyone wants to be empowered
  • We can not just empower staff and assume that they will assume the empowerment
  • Empowerment may not be appropriate for some organizations
  • Empowerment actually requires more management effort
  • Empowerment  means changes and constant changes may keep things unsettled
  • There is a risk that empowerment efforts may fail

3. Barriers to empowerment
Here are some barriers that may prevent empowerment to be implemented:

From the aspect of organization:
  • Lack of trust between manager and staff
  • No clear definition and policy about accountability
  • Empowered staff do not receive enough training to be able to handle the empowerment
  • No differentiation between staff
  • Lack of communication
  • Unclear vision
From the aspect of manager:
  • Unwillingness to give up control
  • Reluctance to change management style
  • Fear of losing position
  • Cling to old accountability
From the aspect of staff:
  • Do not want to be accountable
  • Do not realize their values and potentials
  • Fear of losing position due to new accountability
  • Lack of training

4. Implementing empowerment
By understanding possible barriers to empowerment, here are how empowerment can be implemented in organizations:

At company level:
  • Develop a clear mission and communicate it clearly to all employees
  • Build trust within the organization at all levels
  • Build an organizational culture that encourage innovation and risk taking
  • Provide adequate training so that staff can handle the empowerment
  • Replace hierarchical structure with self-managed teams
  • Set clear boundaries for authority and accountability
At team level:
  • Get staff to involve in selecting their work assignments and the methods for accomplishing tasks
  • Create and environment of cooperation, information sharing, discussion, and shared ownership of goals
  • Encourage staff to take initiative, make decision, and use their knowledge
  • When problems arise, find out what staff think and let them help design the solutions
  • Stay out of the way, give staff the freedom to put their ideas and solutions into practice
  • Maintain high morale and confidence by recognizing successes and encouraging high performance


5. Empowerment in startup
In my opinion, empowerment should be compulsory in startup company and become part of its organizational culture for the following reasons:
  • In terms of organizational culture, startup company should have high level of Individual Autonomy dimension and this can only be achieved via empowerment.
  • Employees in startup company are usually the “A players” and they are likely  to have the ability to handle empowerment.
  • Startup company is there to grow fast and so are its employees. Empowerment will prepare and help them to grow.
  • For startup software company, such Agile methodologies as Scrum or Extreme Programming requires self-managed teams and this can only be achieved via the implementation of empowerment.

Bess, D., 2012. Power, BUS 626 Organizational Behavior. University of Hawaii at Manoa, unpublished.

The passive-agressive organization

Among the seven types of organization, the Passive-Aggressive is one of the unhealthy types of organization but unfortunately, it is also the most popular one. Research shows that approximately 27% of organizations are passive-aggressive, where “everyone agrees but nothing changes”. The purpose of this post is to list the symptoms of  passive-aggressive organizations as well as to suggest some “treatments” for this type of organization.

According to Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. (2009), here are the symptoms of passive-aggressive organizations:

Inability to execute:
  • The organization is extremely resistant to change
  • Reaching consensus is easy, but actions are not implemented
  • Employees often ignore strategic edicts from management
  • Lack of ownership and accountability leads to inaction or irresponsible behavior
Ineffective decision making:
  • In centralized organizations, line managers second-guess headquarters decisions
  • In decentralized organizations, senior managers micromanage their subordinates
  • Decisions are often ill-considered, because accountability is unclear
  • Key decisions are often ignored/overlooked because decision rights are not well defined
Information disconnect:
  • Line managers and senior managers are rarely “on the same page” regarding key business indicators
  • Line managers make suboptimal choices because they do not understand their bottom-line impact
  • Headquarters is not apprised of important competitive information and, thus, is slow to respond
  • Different divisions/functions/regions operate as silos
  • Poor horizontal communication leads to inefficiencies and conflicting messages to the market
Inconsistent or conflicting motivators:
  • Incentives do not promote the best interests of the firm
  • The firm frustrates strong performers and fails to weed out poor performers
  • Firms fail to attract and retain talent
  • Complacency takes hold because career advancement and compensation are not closely tied to performance
  • Ineffective appraisals result in individuals’ advancing beyond their capabilities

Do nothing

It should be noted that an actual passive-aggressive organization is not necessary to have all of the symptoms listed above. You can also check what type of organization yours is using this quiz.

So if your organization is a passive-aggressive one then what should you do? Here are some suggested “treatments” for passive-aggressive organizations (Neilson, Pasternack and Van Nuys, 2005):

  • Bring in new blood: Outsiders send an unmistakable signal to the existing employees that “things are so badly broken we can’t fix them ourselves anymore”. In addition, outsiders bring new standards they expect the organization to meet.
  • Leave no building block unturned: Change everything at once, so that the magnitude of the problem, and of the effort that will be required to fix it, cannot be denied.
  • Make decisions, and make them stick: Allocate and clarify firm “decision rights.” These rights should be delegated to those equipped with enough information and most able to effect the desired outcome, which often means front-line employees.
  • Spread the word and the data: Everyone in the organization must have access to the relevant information and be clear about which issues deserve the highest priority.
  • Match motivators to contribution: Motivators must be designed correctly so that they actually promote contribution.

Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., 2009. The Passive-Aggressive Organization: Converting Consesus Into Action.
Neilson, G. L., Pasternack, B. A. and Van Nuys, K. E., 2005. The Passive Aggressive Organization. Harvard Business Review, October 2005, pp.82-92

What kind of organization is yours?

According to Neilson, Pasternack and Van Nuys (2005), organizations can be classified into seven major types:

1. Resilient
  • Inspires both awe and envy because everything seems to come so easily to it: rewards, talent, respect
  • Is flexible, forward looking, and fun
  • Can attract team players easily
  • Is the healthiest type of organization
2. Just-in-Time
  • Demonstrates an ability to “turn on a dime” when necessary, without losing sight of the big picture
  • Has a “can-do” attitude
  • Has “one-hit wonders,” rather than a reliable source of advantage
  • Does not have consistent, disciplined structures and processes
  • Is not always proactive in preparing for change
3. Military Precision
  • Employees know their roles well and implements them diligently
  • Is hierarchical and operates under a highly controlled management model
  • Does not deal well with events for which it has not planned
4. Fits-and-Starts
  • Has smart people with enthusiasm and drive but they do not often pull in the same direction at the same time
  • Does not have strong direction from the top and a solid foundation of common values below
  • Is an overextended organization and almost out of control
5. Outgrown
  • Expands beyond its original organizational model
  • Power is closely held at the top
  • Top-down direction and decision-making is strictly enforced
  • Reacts slowly to market developments and often finds it can not get out of its own way
6. Overmanaged
  • Has multiple layers of organizational hierarchy
  • Managers micro-manage their subordinates
  • Is bureaucratic and highly political
  • Is not very suitable for self-starters and results-oriented individuals
7. Passive-Aggressive

+ Achieves consensus easily, but struggles to implement agreed-upon plans
+ Underground resistance from field operations routinely defeats headquarters initiatives

Among these seven types of organization, the healthiest one is Resilient, followed by Just-in-Time and Military Precision. The other four (Fits-and-Starts, Outgrown, Overmanaged and Passive-Aggressive) are all unhealthy. The following diagram shows the popularity of each type of organization:

Seven types of organization

The following quiz will help you to find out what kind of organization yours is. Please click here to do the quiz.

Booz Allen Hamilton Inc, 2012. The Seven Organization Types, [online] Available at:<> [Accessed 18 December 2012].
Neilson, G. L., Pasternack, B. A. and Van Nuys, K. E., 2005. The Passive Aggressive Organization. Harvard Business Review, October 2005, pp.82-92

Characteristics of an employee that a startup should hire

“Employees are the most valuable assets of a company”. This statement is correct for most organizations and it is extremely correct for startups, in which no other assets such as branding and products exist yet. As a result, hiring the “right” people is very essential for the success of a startup, especially where one employee can represent 20% or even 50% of the company’s workforce.

startup hiring

After working for two startup companies and reading articles about startups’ recruitment, I come up with a list of characteristics of an employee that a startup should hire:
  • Top talented: Startup is all about innovation, creativity and differentiation and you really need the top talented team members to achieve those. You will need what is so-called the “A players” because “A players” will attract other “A players” whereas “B players” only hire “C players” due to the fact that “B players” are less confident in their talent and they prefer working with people who are not better than them.
  • Flexible and agile: Startup is all about trial and error to figure out the business model that works. As a result, your team members need to be flexible and agile enough to make the changes or at least to adapt to changes. In a startup company, people should be willing to pivot, even when that means they need to throw away all the existing progress.
  • “Can do” attitude: Startup is usually about new products, new technologies, new solutions; something that have never been done before. As a result, it is very important that the team members must have a “can do” attitude, the willingness to try new thing and do not afraid of failure. In my opinion, young employees are usually better than senior employees in terms of this “can do” attitude. From my experience, senior employees, who have more knowledge and experience, usually use their knowledge and experience to prove the impossibles the ideas, not the other way around.
  • “Get shit done” attitude: For a startup, it is more important to get the task done than to follow certain process to achieve it. As a result, team members should be willing to do whatever it is necessary to achieve the result. It is quite normal in a startup that: I don’t care how you gonna do it, I just need to get it done.
  • Risk-taker: Startup is all about opportunities, and of course, about risks. Working in a startup company is a risk itself. Team members should be willing to take risks to seize the opportunities.
  • Self-motivated: It is very important for a team member to be self-motivated in a startup company due to the fact that others (including the founder) will not have enough time, and also responsibility, to motivate him. Self-motivation can be achieved if team members have strong belief in the vision of the company. From my experience, employees without self-motivation can not wait until the startup succeeds.
  • Multi-roles player: Members of a startup should be able to play multiple roles at the same time due to the fact that startup usually has just a few people in the early date. In the first startup company that I worked for, I played the roles of a Developer, a Project Manager and a HR Manager, all at the same time.

Some of the characteristics in this list are good for every type of organization, not just the startup ones, such as top talented and self-motivated. Others may only be appropriate for startups such as risk-taker and multi-roles player. One more important thing is that it is essential for the employees to fit into the startup culture, which is driven by the strategic plan.

What define a startup?

1. Introduction
The term “startup” is becoming more and more popular, mostly in the IT industry. Most of the IT news are now writing about startups: people found it, analyze it, work for it and invest into it. You can find IT companies that call themselves “startup” everywhere, from such developed countries as the US to developing ones such as Vietnam. I myself have worked for two companies that call themselves startups, however, I still don’t have a clear definition of a startup. So what criteria define a startup? Is it the age of the company? Or the size? Or something else? I saw companies that have more than 100 employees and still call themselves startup. I saw companies that are more than 3 years old and still call themselves startup. So it seems to me that there is no “unified” definition for a startup.


The purpose of this post is to present a list of all possible criteria that may define a startup. My personal opinions will also be give in the conclusion.

2. Criteria that define a startup
A quick literature review shows that different people have different criteria for startup.    This list suggests all possible criteria that people may use to define a startup:
  • Age: Is less than 1 year old
  • Size:  Have less than 100 employees
  • Revenue: Generate a revenue less than X amount of money
  • Office: Do not have actual satellite office (office that have more than just a representative)
  • Focus: Focus on learning, discovery and crazy growth instead of profit
  • Growth: Is designed to grow fast
  • Output: Expected output is a new product, a new technology or a solution for existing challenges in the market
  • Members: Majority of the members (more than 50%) are entrepreneurs
  • Culture: Have a “startup culture”
  • Business model: Is designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model

3. Conclusion
According to my literature review, the criteria about “business model” is the most widely accepted one, followed by the “growth” criteria. I myself totally agree to this definition: A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. So as long as you are still figuring out how to make money, you are still a startup, despite of the age and size of your company. I also strongly disagree to the “culture” criteria: A company is a startup because it has “startup culture”. In my opinion, it should be the other way around: Because you are a startup company, you must have a startup organizational culture so that your culture is aligned with your strategic plan.

More discussion about Reinforcement Theory

Among all the theories of motivation, Reinforcement Theory is the one that I believe in the most, mainly because its idea is totally common sense to me: behaviors that lead to good consequences will be repeated and vice versa, behaviors that have negative outcomes will be discontinued. I kinds of grew up with this theory since it was applied by my parents regularly and I am pretty sure that the theory is also applied by most of the parents. As a result, it is very easy to understand the reason why this theory is very common sense to most of us.

Despite the common sense and simplicity of Reinforcement Theory, it is very interesting that the theory is not always be applied in organizations. It is not rare to see the following scenarios:
  • People go above and beyond the call of duty or exceed the expectations but their contributions are ignored or sometimes, their actions are even criticized.
  • People with bad behaviors receive no punishments.
  • Sometimes, people with bad behaviors may even be promoted so that they will be transferred to another location and become someone else’s problem.
  • People are rewarded for the wrong kind of behavior. For example, a company whose strategic plan focuses on quality only rewards its employees for meeting the deadline regardless of the amount of defects contained in the release.

Among these scenarios, I myself usually see the second one (people with bad behaviors receive no punishments) mainly because the managers are afraid of the reaction the person will give when confronted or because the company culture discourages punishments.

According to Reinforcement Theory, employee behavior can be modified using the following methods:
  • Positive Reinforcement: Possible behavior followed by positive consequences. It is important that the positive consequences should follow the positive behavior immediately so that the employee can see the link between them.
  • Negative Reinforcement: Positive behavior followed by removal of negative consequences. This method is used to increase the desired behavior.
  • Extinction: Negative behavior is followed by removal of positive consequences. This method decreases the frequency of negative behaviors and helps to avoid the situation when negative behaviors are demonstrated because they are being inadvertently rewarded.
  • Punishment: Negative behavior is followed by negative consequences. This method is used to decrease the frequency of undesirable behaviors.

In my opinion, the “Positive reinforcement” and “Punishment” methods are more effective because they show a clear relationship between the behaviors and the consequences as well as send a strong message to the employees. Some companies, such as the one that I am currently working for, discourage the usage of punishments. However, in my opinion, punishments should be as necessary as rewards to ensure appropriate behaviors in an organization. We just need to be more careful when defining and applying punishments.

There is a systematic application of Reinforcement Theory to modify employee behaviors in organization. This model is called the Organizational Behavior Modification which consists of five stages:

Organizational Behavior Modification

Let’s say that we want to eliminate the bad behavior of being late to meetings. Here is how we apply the five steps of the Organizational Behavior Modification model:
  • Step 1: Identify the behavior that need to modified, which is being late to meetings.
  • Step 2: Measure the baseline level: The percentage of meetings that a specific employee is late to.
  • Step 3: Analyze the reasons and outcomes: Why is this employee late for meeting? What are the consequences of this lateness?
  • Step 4: Intervene: Remove the positive outcomes (can not be accessed for the title employee of the month) or punish the employee (cut off bonus).
  • Step 5: Evaluate and maintain: The behavior of being late to meetings is measured periodically and maintained.

Bauer, T. and Erdogan, Berrin., 2009. Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Flat World Knowledge, Inc.

More discussion about Equity Theory

1. Introduction
Equity Theory says that an employee will compare his job’s inputs and outcomes with those of relevant others and then attempts to correct any inequity. It should be noted that equity perceptions is considered as a result of a subjective process and hence, for the same situation, some people may think that it is fair while others may think that it is unfair.

2. Reactions to inequity
Potential reactions that an employee may have toward inequity have already been discussed in the “Theories of motivation” post. The following table gives more detailed examples for those reactions:

Reactions Example
Distort perceptions Changing one’s thinking to believe that the referent actually is more skilled than previously thought
Increase referent’s inputs Encouraging the referent to work harder
Reduce own input Deliberately putting forth less effort at work. Reducing the quality of one’s work
Increase own outcomes Negotiating a raise for oneself or using unethical ways of increasing rewards such as stealing from the company
Change referent Comparing oneself to someone who is worse off
Leave the situation Quitting one’s job
Seek legal action Suing the company or filing a complaint if the unfairness in question is under legal protection

Those are the reactions that an employee may have when he thinks that the situation is unfair for him, which means that his job’s outcomes (salary, etc..) are lower than the referent. What if his job’s outcomes are higher than others who have the same title and do the same tasks? What if he is overpaid or over-rewarded? Originally, Equity Theory proposed that over-rewarded individuals would experience guilt and would increase their effort to restore perceptions of equity. However, research has shown that in reality, individuals experience less distress as a result of being over-rewarded. This can be explained by the fact that individuals can easily find perceptual ways to deal with overpayment inequity, such as believing they have more skills and contribute more to the organization compared to the referent person.

3. Three types of personality trait regarding to inequity
Research has shown that different people have different levels of sensitivity to inequity. Regarding to this, individuals can be categorized into 3 types of personality trait:
  • Equity Sensitivity: This type of people expect to maintain equitable relationships, and they experience distress when they feel they are over-rewarded or under-rewarded.
  • Benevolent: This type of people give without waiting to receive much in return.
  • Entitled: This type of people expect to receive a lot without giving much in return.
4. Three types of justice in organizations
Originally, Equity Theory defines fairness is limited only to fairness of outcomes. It should be noted that there are totally 3 types of fairness in organizations and Equity Theory should be applied to all of them:
  • Distributive justice: refers to the degree to which the outcomes received from the organization are perceived to be fair.
  • Procedural justice: refers to the degree to which fair decision-making procedures are used to arrive at a decision.
  • Interactional justice: refers to the degree to which people are treated with respect, kindness, and dignity in interpersonal interactions.
Three types of justice
Besides distributive justice, procedural justice is also very important because people do not only care about the rewards but they also expect decision-making processes (such as layoffs, employee selection, performance appraisals, and pay decisions) to be fair, especially when they do not get the outcomes they feel they deserve. Here are several suggestions to achieve procedural justice:
  • Give employees advance notice before laying them off, firing them, or disciplining them.
  • Allow employees voice in decision making for such processes as performance appraisal system.
  • Provide explanations to employees about reward systems or policies and rules.
  • Maintain consistency in treatment.
5. Tips for being fair
Here are several tips for being fair in an organization:
  • Pay attention to different contribution levels of employees when distributing rewards: People who are more qualified, skilled, or those who did more than others expect to receive more rewards.
  • Sometimes may have to disregard people’s contributions to distribute certain rewards: Some rewards can be equally distributed (such as health insurance) or based on individual needs (such as unpaid leave for health reasons).
  • Pay attention to how decisions are made: This is to ensure procedural justice.
  • Pay attention to how to talk to people: This is to ensure interactional justice.
  • Pay attention to the perceptions of others about fairness: Remember that justice is in the eye of the beholder.
  • Create a sense of justice in the entire organization: People do not only care about their own justice but also pay attention to how others are treated.

6. Reference
Bauer, T. and Erdogan, Berrin., 2009. Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Flat World Knowledge, Inc.

Motivating people using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Acting as an expansion of the post about “Theories of motivation“, the purpose of this post is to discuss how an organization can motivate its employees using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s theory says that human beings’ needs can be hierarchically ranked in 5 levels and  once the lower needs are satisfied, people will start looking to satisfy higher needs. Basing on this theory, organization can motivate its employees by proving them with satisfactions for their current needs.

In order to suggest how to satisfy each level of needs, it is important to understand each of the level:
  • Physiological: the need for food, water, shelter and other biological needs. These are very basic needs and when they are lacking, the search for them may overpower all other urges.
  • Safety: the need to be free from the threat of danger, pain, or an uncertain future.
  • Social: the need to bond with other human beings, be loved, and form lasting attachments with others.
  • Esteem: the need to be respected by one’s peers, feel important, and be appreciated.
  • Self-Actualization: the need to become all one is capable of becoming.
By understanding each level of needs, an organization can motivate its employees by providing them with satisfactions for their current needs:
  • Physiological needs can be satisfied by:
    • Providing financial benefits (salary, bonus…) that can satisfy physiological needs of the employee
  • Safety needs can be satisfied by:
    • Providing generous financial benefits that can help the employee to save for the future
    • Providing health insurance
    • Providing company-sponsored retirement plans
    • Offering a measure of job security
  • Social needs can be satisfied by:
    • Having a friendly working environment
    • Providing a workplace conducive to collaboration and communication with others
    • Providing company trip, company picnic or other social get-togethers
    • Scheduling and sponsoring team activities
  • Esteem needs can be satisfied by:
    • Providing high financial benefits
    • Providing promotion opportunities
    • Designing a reward system that recognize employee’s accomplishments
    • Conferring job titles that communicate to the employee that one has achieved high status within the organization
  • Self-actualization needs can be satisfied by:
    • Offering development and growth opportunities
    • Assigning work that is interesting and challenging to the employee

Organizations may ensure a highly motivated workforce by making the effort to satisfy the different needs of each employee. It is interesting that good financial benefits can satisfy not only physiological but also safety and esteem needs. It should also be noted that the same “treatment” may have different reactions, depending on the employee’s current needs. For example, an employee whose current needs are esteem needs may feel satisfied when his supervisor praises an accomplishment. However, another employee who is trying to satisfy social needs may not like being praised by his manager in front of peers if the praise sets the individual apart from the rest of the group.

Bauer, T. and Erdogan, Berrin., 2009. Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Flat World Knowledge, Inc.

Theories of motivation

Motivation is the psychological feature that causes us to act or behave in a particular way. In the context of organization, motivation can be defined as “the desire to achieve a goal or a certain performance level, leading to goal-directed behavior” (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009). As a result, motivation is very important for organization because it is one of the forces that lead to performance and productivity. The following equation show the relationship between job performance and motivation:
Performance and Motivation
The purpose of this post is to briefly introduce the theories of motivation. More practical and detailed discussion about motivation will be presented in later posts.

Generally speaking, the theories of motivation can be divided into 2 categories:
  • Need-based theories: These theories are conducted basing on studies and examination of individual needs. Most of need-based theories are introduced before process-based theories.
  • Process-based theories: These theories view motivation as a rational process rather than just an action aimed at satisfying a need. According to process-based theories, individuals analyze their environment, develop thoughts and feelings, and react in certain ways. As a result, process-based theories attempt to explain the thought processes of individuals who demonstrate motivated behavior.

1. Need-based theories of motivation

1.1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
This theory is based on a simple premise: people have needs that are hierarchically ranked. The following diagram shows the hierarchy of needs and details about them:
Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs

There are 5 levels of needs, starting from Physiological level (the most fundamental needs) to Self-Actualization level (the most advanced needs). Maslow’s theory says that:
  • There are some needs that are basic to all human beings, and if they are absent, nothing else matters.
  • As we satisfy these basic needs, we start looking to satisfy higher order needs.
  • Once a lower level need is satisfied, it no longer serves as a motivator.
  • By understanding what people need, we can have clues on how to motivate them.

1.2. ERG theory
ERG theory is a modification of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which basic human needs may be grouped under three categories: Existence, Relatedness, and Growth. Existence is equivalent to Maslow’s physiological and safety needs, Relatedness corresponds to social needs, and Growth refers to Maslow’s esteem and self-actualization.

ERG Theory

Here are some important points about this theory:
  • Unlike Maslow’s theory, ERG theory does not rank needs in any particular order and it explicitly recognizes that more than one need may operate at a given time.
  • ERG theory suggests that individuals who are frustrated in their attempts to satisfy one need may regress to another.
  • ERG theory implies that we need to recognize the multiple needs that may be driving individuals at a given point to understand their behavior and properly motivate them.

1.3. Two-Factor theory
This theory states that some factors eliminate job dissatisfaction (Hygiene Factors) and other factors increase job satisfaction (Motivators). Hygiene Factors include company policies, supervision, working conditions, salary, safety, and security on the job. When employees are happy with the Hygiene Factors, it does not mean that they are motivated. However, when the employees are not happy with the hygiene factors, they are demotivated.

Two Factor Theory

In contrast, Motivators are factors that are intrinsic to the job, such as achievement, recognition, interesting work, increased responsibilities, advancement, and growth opportunities. According to this theory, Motivators are the conditions that truly encourage employees to try harder.

1.4. Acquired-Needs theory (Three Needs theory)

This theory says that individuals acquire needs as a result of their life experiences and these needs can be categorized into 3 types:
  • Need for Power: The need to influence and lead others, and control one’s environment.
  • Need for Achievement: The need to accomplish goals, excel, and strive continually to do things better.
  • Need Affiliation: The need for friendly and close interpersonal relationships.

Acquired Needs Theory
According to this theory, all individuals possess a combination of these needs, and the dominant needs are thought to drive employee behavior. Among the need-based approaches to motivation, this theory is the one that has received the greatest amount of support.

2. Process-based theories of motivation

2.1. Equity theory
This theory says that an employee will compare his job’s inputs and outcomes with those of relevant others and then attempts to correct any inequity.

Equity Theory

Inputs are the contributions that the employee feels that he is making to the organization such as hard work, loyalty and skills. Outcomes are the perceived rewards that the employee can receive from the situation such as salary, promotion or even treatment from his manager. The referent that the employee uses to compare with can be a category of people or a specific person, such as a co-worker who has the same job title and performs the same type of tasks.

If the employee thinks that there is inequity or unfairness then he may have one or more of the following potential reactions:
  • Altering his perceptions of inputs and outcomes by:
    • Downplay his own inputs
    • Valuing his outcomes more highly
    • Value the referent’s inputs more highly
    • Downplay the referent’s outcomes
  • Having the referent increase inputs
  • Reducing his own inputs
  • Attempting to increase his outcomes
  • Changing the referent, comparing with someone else
  • Leaving the situation by quitting

2.2. Expectancy theory

This theory says that individual motivation is determined by a rational calculation in which individuals evaluate their situation by asking 3 questions:
  • Will my effort lead to high performance?
  • Will performance lead to outcomes?
  • Do I find the outcomes desirable?

Expectancy Theory

According to this theory, motivational strength is determined by the perceived probabilities of a given outcome and the attractiveness of that outcome to the individual. This equation show the relationship between those factors:
T = M x E x R
– T = tendency to act
– M = strength of motive
– E = expectation that motive will be rewarded
– R = reward value

2.3. Reinforcement theory
According to reinforcement theory, behavior is a function of its outcomes. This theory based on a simple idea: people will repeat the behaviors if those behaviors lead to good consequences and vice versa, people will stop the behaviors if those behaviors lead to negative outcomes. Reinforcement theory describes four interventions to modify employee behavior:

Reinforcement Interventions

Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement are the two methods to increase the desired behavior whereas Extinction and Punishment are used to reduce the frequency of negative behaviors. By properly tying rewards to positive behaviors, eliminating rewards following negative behaviors, and punishing negative behaviors, organization can increase the frequency of desired behaviors.


Bess, D., 2012. Motivation, BUS 626 Organizational Behavior. University of Hawaii at Manoa, unpublished

Bauer, T. and Erdogan, Berrin., 2009. Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Flat World Knowledge, Inc.

Wikipedia, 2012. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 7 December 2012 ].