“Am I a jerk?” This is a question that many self-aware founders will ask, especially when making tough business decisions.

Within any company, a culture exists whether you’ve devised it intentionally or not, and the founder almost always sits at the heart of that culture. Considering this when questioning your overall jerk levels makes you more intentional about your company culture. Often, what we give out becomes the norm among others too.

I read an interesting article in HBR entitled “When Founders Go Too Far.” Author Steve Blank highlights some high-profile cases (Uber, Zenefits) where, under the watch of founders who were part of it, toxic cultures were developed.

In these cases, many problems became rampant within the organizations before CEOs leave (or are forced to leave). Habits and behaviors become the norms of organizational culture, even if they don’t serve to help the company.

Most founders have no ambition to become the jerk who gets used as an example in an article like this, nor do you want that sort of behavior impacting your business! Here’s what to consider about yourself and the overall company culture.

Get our checklist for building a healthy culture here

What makes for a healthy founder culture?

Company culture is often something that just “is” but the role of the founder packs one of the biggest impacts. It has been argued that core leaders define 80% of a company’s culture, so it’s important to be intentional about that culture from the beginning.

You might be the competitive sort, impulsive, cautious, measured or hot-headed – all of these things can impact on business culture. If a founder tends to lose their temper and yell, that becomes something that is “normal” among other managers in the business. If a founder likes to party frequently, this becomes a norm for the business.

The key is having that self-awareness from the beginning and setting an intentional culture. If you know you’re in the habit of getting irritable or losing your temper, that is probably something you want to strategize around. What will you do to avoid that becoming part of the culture?

Molly Graham, Facebook’s former manager of culture and employment branding, offers a list of useful questions when analyzing company culture DNA:

  • What are my strengths?
  • What am I outstanding at?
  • What sets me apart from the people around me?
  • What do I value about the people around me?
  • When I look at my friends, what are the characteristics they have in common?
  • What qualities drive me crazy about people?
  • How do I make my best decisions? (Think of a recent decision you made that had a good outcome. What process lead to that?)
  • What am I bad at?

A healthy founder culture is productive for business. It makes people want to come to work, it values employees, and encourages diverse people and views. You probably have other things to add to these characteristics, but the key point is to be intentional. Self-awareness is a good place to begin.

Founders need to be self-aware, in order to set an intentional culture Click To Tweet

Unhealthy cultures

One of the big complaints at Uber was that a “bro culture” was encouraged, in no small part by the founder and former CEO. The company is by no means the only one, and let’s face it, tech companies have been particularly under the microscope for encouraging this mentality. In a New York Times piece aptly entitled “Jerks and the Companies They Ruin,” Dan Lyons blasts “bro culture” for creating toxic environments and unsustainable business practices:

“Bro cos. become corporate frat houses, where employees are chosen like pledges, based on “culture fit.” Women get hired, but they rarely get promoted and sometimes complain of being harassed. Minorities and older workers are excluded.

Bro culture also values speedy growth over sustainable profits, and encourages cutting corners, ignoring regulations and doing whatever it takes to win.

Sometimes it works. But often the whole thing just flames out.”

Company culture

Other examples of unhealthy workplace culture might include silos where there is a lack of collaboration. For example, what if a competitive founder encouraged competition among team members, but that got extended to people protecting their own self-interests? You’d soon have people holding on to information or skills that could help others because they “want the credit.”

Drama, backstabbing, conflict, or tyranny among leadership can also be signs of an unhealthy culture. These things don’t always come from a jerk-founder, but the founder certainly needs to manage them as early as possible.

If anything, consider the impact of an unhealthy culture or “jerk boss” from the perspective of employees. As a Psychology Today article states: “There’s no question, management practices can damage the mental health of a company’s employees. When unhealthy management and leadership harms employees, it also harms their work performance.”

Keeping egos in check

A lot of people jump to the defensive if you mention ego – “what?! I don’t have an ego!” You do – everyone does, it’s just that some are more obvious than others! One of the keys to not accidentally becoming “that jerk” is to learn to keep your ego in-check.

Dr. Leon Selzer describes the difference between a strong (or healthy) ego and a big one:

“… people with strong egos can be viewed generally as self-confident; secure and emotionally stable; flexible, adaptive, and able to cope well with everyday stresses and frustrations; mature, independent, and resourceful; and authentic. On the contrary, those with big egos lack inner stability and are more easily upset; tend to be rigid, reactive, dogmatic, and egocentric; simulate self-confidence (rather than truly possess it); display arrogance and a narcissistic sense of entitlement; show deficits in personal integrity; and, perhaps more telling than anything else, demonstrate–when feeling threatened–a surprising weakness, even fragility. Although such egos may, indeed, be “oversized,” their actual bigness or stature has largely to do with ego-inflation, vs. any real ego strength.”

It’s not just about keeping your ego in-check, but also about ensuring a healthy ego in the first place. This will go a long way toward not becoming the accidental jerk!

If you’re self-aware, you’ve probably noted your own strengths and weaknesses and how those might play out in business. It’s important to be able to say “hey, I’m great technically, but as a people-manager I feel out of place,” or whatever the case may be. This also helps you to hire to fill any shortages.

According to Dr. Steven Stosny, here’s another way to look at your own actions and behaviors:

“Feelings follow value investment but not the other way around. If you allow your core values to motivate behavior, your feelings will follow – you’ll feel more authentic, with a stronger identity and more coherent sense of self. If you act on your feelings, you won’t know who the hell you are, as who you really are gets lost in the vicissitudes of temporary emotional states.”

I think there’s a pretty good chance that “jerk bosses” are responding to feelings rather than core values (unless their core values support being a jerk!).

Company culture

When founders shouldn’t be CEO…

A common thread in many of those company culture “horror” stories is that there was a founder as a CEO, and that person continued relatively unchecked for a while. It’s totally understandable how founders become CEO – the company is their brainchild after all – but it’s also quite obvious that some founders should never be CEO.

The move from founder of a startup to CEO of a growing company is bigger than it may seem. Some founders are made for the role. Others seem to fall into it by default and don’t necessarily have the knowledge about governance or managing relationships. In many companies, it has been reported that there is a power imbalance, granting most of the voting shares to founders. In this sense, it’s not just the skills or experience of the CEO that becomes a problem, but the lack of independent parties when it comes to governance.

Take this as another essential tip when it comes to not becoming a “jerk.” Do you have checks in place, perhaps a trusted mentor who may say, “pull your head in” every now and then? No one is infallible, even if you are generally an awesome leader!

As to the question of being a founder CEO, that self-awareness we talked about goes a long way. Are you able to look objectively at your own strengths and weaknesses? Can you sit down with someone who can help you to unravel the answers to those questions? Sometimes you may not have a lot of options, but you can leverage other people who have strengths that you don’t.

Download our checklist for building a healthy founder culture here

Final thoughts

No one wants to be the subject of an analysis piece on the “toxic culture” of your company, so it’s important to realize just how much sway you have as a founder.

You set the tone of the company, and your actions and behaviors set the culture. It’s as much about what you do as what you don’t do. For example, what do you tolerate, even if you don’t partake in it?

Taking the time to be aware of your own strengths, weaknesses, values, and goals will help. Jerks tend to be reactive and leave havoc in their wake – good leaders are proactive, open to new ideas, and very self-aware. You get to set the intention.