How to Change Your Company Culture With a ‘Shocking Rule’
Written by Dave Bailey
What behavioural norms define your company culture? Change culture at your startup by introducing a single, shocking rule.
When a company is small, founders have a huge personal influence on company culture. Their behaviours, both good and bad, seep into the team fabric and provide a blueprint of what ‘good’ is supposed to look like.
However, this doesn’t last forever.
As the company grows, other factors influence team behaviours. Changes in business strategy, work environment, and exposure to new people inside (and outside) the company can impact people’s behaviours.
The adoption of new behaviours can even happen by accident. In a famous experiment, actors in a waiting room were instructed to stand up each time a bell sounded. When unknowing participants entered the room, they began to imitate the actors, also standing up when the bell sounded. Curiously, they continued to stand up even when the actors left the room.
In other words, when people see stuff happen — even decidedly weird stuff — they assume it’s normal and copy it. Isolated incidents, such as a particular reaction to feedback, an early departure in the office, and even missing a deadline, can become the norm.
A practical definition of culture
What does ‘culture’ mean anyway? Here’s a useful way to think about it:
Culture is a set of normalised behaviours that differentiate one group from another.
A winning culture is one where normal behaviours enhance — or even enable — its ability to deliver unique value and implement its strategy. By contrast, a losing culture’s behaviours undermine company strategy.
For example, if innovation is core to your company’s strategy, you might want to encourage behaviours such as taking-risks, putting customers first, and following agile principles. However, if safety and reliability are critical, these behaviours may lead to failure.
The bigger your company, the harder it is to change the behavioural norms, so the process of culture-shaping should begin as early as possible.
A radical way to change behaviours
If you want to change people’s behaviours, you have to change their beliefs. Many leaders attempt to do this by writing out a new set of beliefs (usually during a fancy retreat in Italy) and presenting them to the team. Sadly, talking about beliefs rarely changes behaviours. This is a great shame, since I’ve been talking about starting yoga for the last 10 years.
When it comes to changing beliefs, talk is cheap — it’s actions that really count.
In What You Do Is Who You Are, Ben Horowitz shared the story of Tom Coughlin, head coach for the New York Giants. When Coughlin started coaching the team, it was a mess, disorganized and complacent. Rather than preach a new belief system, he implemented a new rule:
If you’re on time, you’re late.’
Coughlin started all meetings five minutes early and fined players $1,000 if they were late, (i.e., not five minutes early). At first, this didn’t go down well. Players complained, they lost their first game, and the press wrote a scathing review.
However, after a while, this shocking rule began to have an effect. Ryan Nassib, the Giant’s quarterback, described how the rule impacted the team:
Coughlin Time is more of a mindset . . . a way for players to discipline themselves, making sure they’re on time, making sure they’re attentive and making sure they’re ready to work.’
Nassib and the team began to understand that the rule wasn’t simply about being on time. They projected a new meaning onto it, interpreting it as a sign of respect and discipline. And this interpretation leaked out into other behaviours too. This is a phenomenon called ‘saying is believing’. By coercing the team into adopting a new behaviour, Coughlin was able to instil a new mindset.
The anatomy of a ‘shocking rule’
Horowitz lays out four rules that determine whether a shocking rule will lead to culture change:
- It must be memorable
- It must raise the question ‘why?’
- Its cultural impact must be straightforward
- People must encounter the rule almost daily
Before implementing any new rules, there are risks to consider. Every attempt to change your team’s mindset has second-order effects, often related to strengths and weaknesses being two faces of the same coin. For example, an attempt to increase your team’s willingness to challenge each other is likely to increase conflicts too. On top of that, you can expect a predictable dip in team morale to accompany such a behavioural change.
That’s why I recommend shocking rules only when widespread behavioural change is critical to your company’s success.
While shocking rules are, well, shocking, they are also commonplace. In fact, a company’s weird and wacky rules can begin to define it.
20 shocking rules to inspire (or scare) you
Here is a set of shocking rules I’ve collected, from which you can learn. To get the most out of this list, ask yourself what might have been happening at these companies before the rule was implemented? And what are the positive virtues the rule represents?
- Facebook on risk-taking: Move fast and break things (source)
- Amazon on data-driven decisions: If the feature doesn’t improve the metric, the entire feature must be rolled back
- Google on autonomy: ‘20% time’ — spend 20% of your time working on what you think will most benefit Google (source)
- 500 Startups on simplicity: ‘Kill a feature’ — kill one underused feature every week (source)
- Zapier on customer-centricity: ‘All-hands support’ — every person on the team, no matter their job title, spends some portion of their day, week, or month talking directly to customers and solving problems for them (source)
- GoogleX on avoiding over-optimising: All code will be deleted in one year’s time
- Gmail on user experience: ‘The 100 ms rule’ — every interaction should be faster than 100 ms (source)
- Valve on autonomy: You’re free to choose to work on whatever you think is interesting (source)
- Agile on being concise: Daily scrum meetings must be done standing up (source)
- VMWare on partnership: Partnership terms should be 51:49 — where the partner is always slightly better off
- Amazon on clarity of thought: No PowerPoint; instead create six-page narrative memos to be read at the beginning of each meeting (source)
- Zappos on belonging: ‘To offer’ — Pays new employees $1,000 to quit after one week in the job (source)
- Spotify on courage: Either you use your one-on-one to have difficult conversation with your manager . . . or they will have one with you
- Various consultancies on professionalism: Reply to every email from a colleague within 24 hours
- Inside.com on transparency: Share everything you did that day in an EOD summary (source)
- Buffer on transparency: ‘Default to transparency’ — All salaries are shared publicly (source)
- Netflix on trust: Unlimited vacation policy (source)
- 15Five on empathy: Start every team meeting with a one-word sentence answering how you’re feeling (source)
- Asana on deep work: No Meeting Wednesdays (source)
- Microsoft on dogfooding: If employees are not troubleshooting and using their own products, they’re not working for the greater good and should be fired (source)
For a rule to be respected, there need to be consequences for not following it. For example, an Asana team that sneaks in a few meetings on a Wednesday isn’t just disobeying the rules — they are negating the cultural impact. If you’re going to implement a rule, you should mean it. If culture is important, you should be willing to hire — and fire — to maintain it.
Also, shocking rules aren’t guaranteed to help your company succeed. When Marissa Meyer took over Yahoo, she tried to encourage collaboration by banning working from home, which Horowitz cites in his book. Yahoo was later sold to Verizon for a disappointing $5Bn (yes, even $5Bn can disappoint).
Creating rules in early-stage startups
It’s easier to experiment with cultural rules when your company is early-stage. Indeed, it’s often new recruits that are most open to new rules and their conformity helps bring existing teammates into line. Many of Zappos’ quirkiest rules were defined when the company was founded.
Every week, I hold a 45-minute leadership retrospective to discuss what we’re proud of and what we’re disappointed about. At the end, we review the output and ask, ‘What one thing can we change to make our work life more wonderful?’
We then craft a shocking rule to accelerate the behaviour change . . . but with one catch: the rule only lasts until the next retro. This makes it easy for leaders to agree and commit; after all, it’s only for a week. Sometimes, the rule is helpful and it sticks. Other times, it doesn’t make much of a difference, or the issue goes away — and the rule goes away too.
Rules naturally change as the company and its strategy progress. Facebook famously updated its legendary mantra to ‘Move Fast With Stable Infra’, which makes more sense for a big company.
Strategy, meet culture
Peter Drucker said, ’Culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ but perhaps strategy and culture should have brunch together — you need both for a successful business outcome.
If you know you have a cultural issue in your company, it will only get harder to fix as time passes. Take the opportunity to shape the rules that will define you now — before they become too costly.
Further reading: How to Cultivate a Growth Mindset on Your Team.
Continue reading about company culture:
- Having a hard time boosting employee morale? Learn how to instill the growth mindset within your team.
- Seen some positive growth within your startup? Here's how to mark small wins to boost employee morale.
- Running a leadership retro? Read my useful guide on how to structure a leadership feedback session.
Originally published Sep 16, 2020, last updated Aug 20, 2021
About Dave Bailey
Hi, I’m Dave Bailey and I coach tech CEOs from Series A to pre-IPO. Join 20,000 entrepreneurs who receive my new essay every week.
I will never sell your information, for any reason.