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20116328_1b27002566_bGary Chou recently tweeted:

The link tracks to two articles that offer “instructions” on how to create a “sick system”:  keep them too busy to think; keep them tired; keep them emotionally involved; reward intermittently.

Whether you want to create a product, change the world, or make money, starting a company is an optimistic, creative act.

There aren’t too many Bad Guys out there starting organizations who are smart, organized, or experienced enough to execute well on Evil Genius.

Most of us don’t set out to create sick systems.

Orientation/rush week at college, boot camp, and gang initiation probably all follow these rules in one way or another.  These “rules” create systems, period.

In the startup world, these “rules” are typically outcomes, not intentions.  When these outcomes are present for long enough, and in the absence of other mitigation, they’re ingredients for a toxic culture.

I’ve never seen an organization that wanted a toxic culture!  Or anyone who wanted to work for one.

I have learned how to identify unhealthy cultures.  Here is some of what I look for.

Founders’ relationships with one another are more important than the organization and its outcomes.  Does the business call itself a “family?”

I’ve seen and worked with healthy family businesses.   We bring our whole selves to work:  it takes some work to see how family and personal dynamics come to the office with us.

The organization doesn’t believe in “process.”   Do they claim a flat organizational structure?  Does the company’s interview/onboarding process progress in a predictable way?  Do they have more than 25 people and no HR/People Chief?

Sorry, I don’t believe in the “flat” or bossless organization.   It can work up to a point.  Once a company can no longer fit around a conference table, there’s going to be a hierarchy.

After that, the organization may be flat  — on paper.   In reality, decisions will be driven through an often-opaque hierarchy.

A healthy organization is clear about people’s roles, goals, and how decisions are made.

Founders lack relevant management experience.   Is this this is the first time the founders have managed people?

Any of these factors are workable!   A strong board helps.   Experienced senior executives can help.   Founders can work with coaches or therapists.  (I find that clients who work with therapists have a broader range of resources to draw on.)

However, the founder is the key:  to the extent that the system has an author, it’s the founder.   If she knows she’s doing it right, no amount of thoughtful feedback will inspire her to change.

As a prospective employee, you can identify a toxic culture by talking with current and former employees.   When you see it, don’t take the job.

If you work for an organization with some of this going on, you may be able to engage a founder in constructive discussion.  If not, don’t take it on.

Unless you’re the author of a system, you won’t be able to detox it.  (Even when a founder has the will to change the system, it may require skill, support and resources that he doesn’t have.)

If you’re a founder and you see these factors arising in your company, probably your most practical first step is to reach out to other founders.

See how they’re managing through some of these issues.  You’re not alone; some of their tactics may work in your organization.

Can you detox a toxic organization?  It depends.  It’s not easy.

It’s better to build it right.  To create a system with healthy boundaries, meaningful process, and a non-toxic culture.

Start by developing strong advisor, mentor, and board relationships.  Have at least one or two other founders you can share experiences with.  Be sure to hire people who have experience that you lack; value and act on their input.

There are ways through any challenge.

(Spoiler alert:  it’s complicated.)

Photo:  Catchy Colors by fady habib, via Flickr under Creative Commons license.