Does Size Matter When It Comes To Culture?

May 29, 2013


Last week I sat down with a friend and small business owner over coffee.  At one point, my friend made a comment, that I didn’t know how to respond to.  He said, “how can you worry about culture with only four employees?”.

To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it myself, which is why I didn’t know how to respond.

That’s when I decided to write this article first.  Sometimes, it’s better for me to think through a new topic by writing about it before I can fully grasp my position.  Otherwise, I risk answering without considering all the alternatives.

Anyway, there’s the question.  Does it matter how many employees you have when it comes to organizational culture?

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Stretched Thin

My initial response was, of course not!  All of my books and all of the gurus that I follow tell me that.  But, before I respond too quickly, I have to take a step back and understand the role of an owner.

First off, the owner is everything to his or her business.  They are the face, the bank, the marketing manager, the book-keeper, the sales manager, etc.  Heavy on the etc!

With all of that going on, you have to acknowledge that this person is stretched thin.  The thought of adding a role here, that is at best going to be complicated, is tough.

Big Versus Small

So, the first thing I have to ask myself is, what have I seen in my past experience.  I’ve worked in a company that had only 3 employees.  I’ve also worked in a company that had 30,000 employees.  That’s a pretty big contrast!

So, what was the difference, when it came to culture?

In the smaller company, our culture was much more malleable.  It changed constantly.  If someone (including myself) wanted to change it that day, I could.  If someone on the team was having a bad day, we pretty much all did.

This was of course the opposite in the larger company.  The culture was set at the top, but there were many levels in between, so it took much more to steer the ship in a different direction.

So, from my perspective the smaller ship is easier to steer, but the captain is also more pre-occupied.

A Question of Value

The real question my friend was asking here (even if he didn’t say it) was, is there any value in worrying about a culture that can change with the wind?

This is really a double edged sword.  While culture in a small organization can be influenced daily by anyone on a team, it can also be rescued more easily than a larger version.

Let’s go back to basics here and review what influence an intentional culture has on a business:

  • Helps to unite the team on a base level.
  • Gives the customer a better, more focused experience.
  • If done correctly, invites good feedback and growth for everyone.
  • Helps to clarify the future for team members.
  • Helps to eliminate individualized “me me me” thinking.

I could go on here, but I think that covers it.  There’s definitely value here – no question in my mind.  The challenge is to make the culture concrete and to make it a priority!

The Team Matters

So, like I said, making the culture concrete and making it a priority is the really hard part.  How do you even begin to do that?  How do you find the time or the energy to do that?  There’s a whole other post in those questions…

To make matters worse, if you haven’t already began to hire people with the culture in mind, then the egg has laid the chicken!

What I mean is that no matter the size of the organization, a culture already exists.  It’s there (good, bad, or ugly), believe me!

Every single one of the people on the team goes home to their significant other and talks about something.  Do they complain about the boss?  Do they gossip about their teammates?  Or do they brag about the integrity and passion their team-mates and leadership have?

So, along with making it concrete and making it a priority; hiring the right team members is going to go a long way in developing an intentional corporate culture.  Same goes with keeping the “right” ones though too.

A Lot At Stake

When I worked on a team of only 3, we didn’t have a “boss”.  We were all three equals and answered to a board of directors.  It was a crazy situation that I wouldn’t recommend.  But, the interesting thing was that we had a culture, it just wasn’t defined, so we changed it constantly.  We debated amongst each other over what was the most important priority in the company (daily).

Because there was no captain steering our ship, the winds tossed us around.”

So from experience, I would say that small businesses should actually worry about culture more than most.  Considering how easily culture is influenced with a small number of people and the large influence it can have over the team’s and the customer’s experience; this seems like an area that just can’t be ignored.

Question: Do you think that a company can exist without a culture?



6 responses to Does Size Matter When It Comes To Culture?

  1. Great post.

    As you alluded to, every company has a culture. It’s either default culture or an intentional culture set by their leaders. In my work I’ve found that most rely on default culture, and it’s a company killer.

    I run a small business with 2 employees, and I’ve realized that if our culture is not articulated often and reinforced through rewards/recognition, it’s not intentional. Better to set it now that when we have 10 employees and things are a mess.

    • Hey thanks Roy!

      It’s great to hear another small biz perspective. I totally agree with you! I can only imagine how tough it is to step outside of the action to focus on something so intangible. Nice job!!

      So, here’s a question for you…

      You know how you define your culture. How would your team members define it? How do you know?

      • Bob,

        To be honest, right now it appears like our team cares about our culture a whole lot. We actually help companies with their People Strategy & Workplace Culture, so all I keep hearing is, “We better practice what we preach, Roy.” (and I’m thankful that the team thinks this way)

        Because it’s our business focus, I see our small team taking it very seriously internally.

        • That’s a pretty awesome story Roy! I guess when it’s your business to help others with this, there is some real accountability there. I think it can hard in other businesses though. I like to suggest survey’s with larger companies, but with smaller ones, it can be tough for people to be honest with their leadership without fear of repercussion.

  2. Great post Bob and great points. In my experience the hiring process is the most important contributor to culture. In the past I have made bad hires and those people have destroyed any healthy culture that existed. When you have four apples in a barrel and one begins to rot, you have lost 25% of your apples and the others go bad shortly after. It’s never pleasant to work in a barrel of rotten apples! Hire slow and fire fast is never truer than it is in a micro sized business.