5 Secrets of a Jerk-Free Workplace
It's just like obscenity. You can recognize jerks but the definition is hard to put into words. It's even harder to keep them out of your business.
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You know the telltale signs of a jerk -- someone who rises fast to the top by sucking up to people with power, taking credit for the best ideas he or she can steal and pointing the blame for failures on the weakest links.
Tintri, a Mountain View, Calif.-based data-storage startup, is trying to address exactly these scenarios by enacting a "no jerk" rule. And the company is growing 140 percent this year, "up from 115 percent growth in 2013," CEO Ken Klein told me by phone earlier this month.
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"We truly believe that setting clear boundaries, a strong culture and open communication are the best cure for jerk-like behaviors," Tintri spokeswoman Katelyn Davis explains in an email. "We are very clear about acceptable and unacceptable behavior," she says. "When current and new employees cross the line, every employee feels empowered to tap a colleague on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, your behavior may have crossed the line.'"
Of course, it's not hard to imagine that a workplace set up like this could end up with the CEO holding all the cards. To fight that, Klein "has openly and repeatedly said that no one is above the no jerk rule," Davis says. "Employees are reminded that they should let him know if they sense that he may have had a moment."
Tintri expects all staff to comply. "Employees understand that the foundation of our healthy culture is built on trust and respect and therefore have a responsibility to give feedback to protect our work environment and to communicate with respect and professionalism," Davis says.
Like other organizations, Tintri experiences moments of high stress, the kind that can bring out jerky behavior. "The Tintri environment is very real -- jerky days/moments are inevitable since it's unrealistic to have nirvana with our diverse, passionate and empowered people force," Davis allows.
"How we recover from a jerky day/moment is what's important," Davis explains. "Unacceptable behavior quickly travels up the grapevine and is resolved. The majority of employees self-correct. We genuinely believe that employees have good intentions and do not intend to be jerks," she says, adding, "Many do not realize the impact they have had on their colleagues. Some employees choose to leave but we've had very few."
What's striking about Tintri is that its culture is defined by more than words. The company has incorporated mechanisms including a culture board (a team of managers who reinforce its values) and training on communication to motivate staffers to act according to company values.
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Other companies have tried to define their culture but in far more polite terms, short of specifying a no-jerk rule. A focus on five core values (scoring results, integrity, teamwork, building inspired products and placing partners and customers first) keeps backup and recovery services startup Axcient, also in Mountain View, from hiring anyone merely seeking a paycheck and stock options. CEO Justin Moore has told me he spends 20 percent of his time attending to Axcient's culture (venture capitalists in Silicon Valley ask for his help with startups troubled by turnover and productivity). At an earlier company, Moore neglected corporate culture and unwanted turnover and low morale ensued. This made him realize that creating and managing culture is part of the CEO's job -- critical to creating an organization with highly talented and productive people.
Likewise CEO Barry Morris tries to run his Cambridge, Mass.-based database startup NuoDB according to values (dedication to innovation and transparency in-house). These inform the hiring and managing of staff. "Culture answers questions about who we are, how we think, what we believe, what kind of people we hire and don't hire," he told me in a phone interview. "We expect every person we hire to come up with new ideas and we make key statistics about our business -- such as the number of users, the number of customer calls, the number of closed deals -- available to all our people."
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"Many companies know what to do," says Tintri's Davis about developing a culture. "Some are just better at actually living them than others. At Tintri, we deliberate about what it means to live CEEIT," meaning creating a customer-centered, excellence-fueled, execution-driven, innovation-obsessed, team-oriented company. "That's our secret sauce. Pretty simple."
"We use the acronym 'CEE-IT,' pronounced 'see it,' because it helps us see what's possible and make it real," Davis concludes.
Here is how Tintri spells out its five values:
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1. Customer centered. "Our customers are our 'true north.' We believe in under promising and over delivering," the company's website declares.
2. Excellence fueled. "We aim for greatness by hiring excellent people, building excellent products, creating excellent processes, and maintaining an excellent work environment," the website says. "We help our customers achieve greatness because we know that our success depends on their success."
3. Execution driven. "We thrive on aggressive execution," Tintri's site offers. "We do what we say, own what we do, and never make commitments that we can't keep. We empower our people to make responsible decisions and trust them to be good stewards of our resources. Accountability matters."
4. Innovation obsessed. "The Tintri team has many years of experience in turning ideas into solutions the industry has never seen before," the company site boasts. "We thrive by challenging the industry status quo."
5. Team oriented. "People at all levels of our organization communicate openly and are able to give and receive frequent feedback," Tintri's site adds. "We thrive on debate, but always discuss ideas respectfully. We also have a 'no jerk' policy."
While there is clearly nothing unique about these values -- almost every company speaks of them -- the most difficult part is making them real. Probably this would require keeping a close eye on how people behave and using incentives. People always acting according to the values would be rewarded and those deviating from them would be admonished or fired.
Having to maintain eternal vigilance is the price that entrepreneurs must pay for a jerk-free workplace. The benefit of that vigilance -- happier employees and customers and higher productivity -- is far greater than the cost.
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