Building The Culture At Your Startup: How to Engage Your Employees

Engagement is a huge problem in the American workforce. In 2015, Gallup found that 50.8% of employees were not engaged and almost 18% were actively disengaged. Big firms experience this problem more acutely than startups, but founders often see the disparity between their level of excitement and their employees as well. 

As Gary Vaynerchuk stated, 

Your company, your startup, is your baby.  You can get people excited about it, and in fact that’s your job, but asking someone to care so much that they turn your business into their life passion, when the ultimate payout is yours (whether from a financial and personal fulfillment perspective, or both) is unrealistic.

So how do you keep employees engaged? A recent report by Gusto on engagement at work found that community is the key to creating success in business. People are social animals, and they stay in jobs because of the people around them, not because of salary. So how can you make sure that your startup builds a strong community from the start? We've listed a few ways below. 

Create an Environment that Fosters Support

One important aspect of community is that people from all levels are supporting each other. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, wrote about this idea in his widely read essay on how he inspired creativity as head of the movie studio. His method for creating a supportive culture was by developing a "brain trust."

This group consists of John and our eight directors (Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Brenda Chapman, Lee Unkrich, Gary Rydstrom, and Brad Lewis). When a director and producer feel in need of assistance, they convene the group (and anyone else they think would be valuable) and show the current version of the work in progress. This is followed by a lively two-hour give-and-take discussion, which is all about making the movie better. There’s no ego. Nobody pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another.

Obviously, a startup will have a drastically different structure from the Pixar example (there may be fewer employees at your startup than people within the Pixar brain trust), but the idea is the same. As a founder, you should be constantly seeking ways to show your support for all of your employees.

Become Actively Involved in the Lives of Your Employees

Top down leadership was the norm for many corporations throughout the 20th century, but leaders must now work to create a sense of community within their organizations. One writer in the Harvard Business review calls this new leadership style "communityship," stating that this style is a "modest form of leadership that might be called engaged and distributed management. A community leader is personally engaged in order to engage others, so that anyone and everyone can exercise initiative."  

Team building is one way to become more involved with your employees (see this guide to avoid making team building awkward). Despite the almost universal eye rolls that are triggered when anyone mentions team building, it is important to do, especially if members of your team are offsite. Tools like can help.  

Empower Your Employees

“Most sustainable improvements in community occur when citizens discover their own power to act…when citizens stop waiting for professionals or elected leadership to do something, and decide they can reclaim what they have delegated to others.” - Peter Block in Community: The Structure of Belonging

Millennials are notorious for their need for feeling empowered to make decisions, but, while they may demand it more than previous generations, any employee will be more motivated when they feel as if they are using their skills to drive the business forward. This idea is now widely accepted as part of self determination theory (see chart below), which suggests that people are more motivated when they have autonomy, competence, and relatedness. 

An example of this idea in practice is the Australian startup Atlassian. Once a quarter, the company allows developers to work on whatever problems they want for 24 hours then present it at the end of the day in a lighthearted meeting over drinks. This one day of autonomy has led to an entire array of new products, bug fixes, and ideas that would have never emerged otherwise. This same dynamic has been observed across many companies. Studies at Cornell showed that autonomous companies grow four times as fast as companies with controlling management styles. 

Create a Learning Environment

About 87% of millennials believe that continued development is a must-have in a workplace, and many of these are willing to take a pay cut to be in a position where they are continuously learning. One way to accomplish this is through collaborative workflows that ensure that employees are interacting and learning from one another. Make sure that you allow workers to create their own learning opportunities while on the job and use part of the workday for learning. Accreditation and licensing programs can motivate employees in certain industries. 

But the key to any of these methods is that employees are using them to increase their career utility, i.e. contribute to the vision and success of the startup. 

In Conclusion

Keeping your employees engaged requires a multi-pronged strategy and will always require more work for continued success. Join us for a webinar on more HR practices that will ensure you build a highly engaged team.