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Culture is Vocabulary

It is common knowledge among startup founders and CEOs that there is a distinct need to build a company culture. But most people in early stage companies have no idea what this means. We figure it means things like asking your co-workers how their weekend went, going out to dinners as a team and supporting your co-workers during rough times. And certainly all of that is important. But I've come to realize one thing in particular over the past several months. Culture is vocabulary. Culture is built through the small choices of words you make on a day-to-day basis in a team's everyday conversation. Culture is how a CEO structures his or her sentences and how problems and questions are verbally addressed. While spending time away from work with your team is important, the vast majority of a company's culture is set in the tone and word choices that all team members make in their daily dialogues.

Here's a simple example: Culture is beginning a counterargument with "I hear you, and" instead of "I hear you, but". Improv comedians are trained to do this to keep a conversation flowing and avoid the perception of error and/or conflict by the audience. Think of this (obviously oversimplified) construction, which allows Comedian A to bounce back without apparent conflict:

Comedian A: The sky is yellow! Comedian B: Yes, and much of it is blue! Comedian A: Oh, and what a pretty blue it is!

Compare that to the following, in which Comedian B directly negates Comedian A's point. Unlike in the last construction, here Comedian A is left in an awkward position, and the audience will typically notice the discontinuity:

Comedian A: The sky is yellow! Comedian B: No, it is blue! Comedian A: Oh, I guess you're right!

And in a team, it's just as important -- nothing builds a culture of defensiveness, politics and anxiety like the frequent use of phrases that are heard as accusatory and conflict-oriented. Avoiding that linguistic trap is where positive culture is built.

This could be called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of corporate culture. That is, the way your employees view your company and their role in it is defined by the structure of the language that is used in day-to-day conversation. The concept, of course, can expand beyond culture to things like roles, team hierarchy, company values and strategy. If a specific team member always addresses his or her peers as a CEO would, an "assumed leadership" may be developed -- for better or worse. That is, it's not always the official titles or recognition that drives vocabulary and tone, but the other way around. This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, but it should be recognized for what it is.

Understanding the impact of vocabulary isn't always the easiest thing for folks in a startup culture that often looks more like investment banking than a bunch of small teams of people pursuing their dreams. Unfortunately, a male-heavy culture with a deep lore built around exceptionalism, independent brilliance and long hours isn't always conducive to driving happiness. But I'm betting that many of us got into this startup game to avoid bad cultures and bosses, not replace them with equally bad situations due to our lack of understanding of the words we use.

This post owes no small debt of gratitude to Jerry Colonna for inspiration.