How to survive a toxic workplace and how to avoid creating one

Inspired by a two minute video about how the Navy Seals does it

Early in my career I made a decision, and I’m not sure what caused me to do it. It was a hunch, an intuition, and I shared it with people.

I said to fellow entry-level colleagues that my relationship with them was more important than my relationship to the company, and that when put to the test I would choose them over the company. (It was put to the test and there was a dark time that maybe I’ll tell you about in some other edition of this newsy).

BUT! It was the best career decision I ever made. As I was laid off or changed jobs, there would always be a group of people that would join me at the next gig. I would get my new job, then I would call my old friends and say “hey it’s better over here!” And they would jump ship.

Over the course of an entire career this created tremendous value. A few of the people that were entry-level with me are now executives at major companies, and they are the decision makers that chose Kelsus (Timber’s parent and software consulting company) as the one to build their projects.

Now that I’m on the other side of the worker/owner divide, I obviously have to have quite a bit of loyalty to my own company, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t still pass along this advice to the people that work for it. In an all-hands last year I gave Kelsus’s employees the same advice to be loyal to each other before being loyal to Kelsus, and I hope they take it to heart.

Some of the companies that I worked for early in my career had absolutely toxic cultures. There were “work 14 hour days seven days a week or your fired” cultures, there were “belittle you in front of everyone” cultures, and there were “only give promotions to the loyal inner circle” cultures. By bonding directly with my peers and assuring them that I would choose them over the company, we built a small, personal network against the toxicity that extended beyond whoever was employing us in the moment.

As companies like Basecamp burn it all down, I wonder if we have anything to be concerned about. Does Kelsus have a toxic culture? If it doesn’t now will it when it’s twice as large? How do we avoid it? Is just telling people to be loyal to each other enough?

I think it might actually be.

This two minute video gets into it. It’s about the line between talent and trust and how to navigate it as a leader when hiring and promoting. I love it.

It shows that the trust I tried to build with my peers at the toxic companies we worked for is the same trust that management should be asking for to avoid toxicity.

But when it’s flipped from grass roots to management, we give it a different name. We call it “follow through,” but it’s essentially trust.

We’ve built Kelsus on this core value. We want people to do what they say they’re going to do more than we want them to be fast or be perfect. Another way to put it is that following through on what you say you’re going to do is more important than doing what your told. We promote people that demonstrate this value consistently.

Kelsus (and therefore Timber which is a sub-part of Kelsus) is not immune to making mistakes. But I hope that if we continue to build everything on a foundation of trust we can avoid getting to a place where we burn it all down.

BUT! Just in case we do go the way of Basecamp, we can all just go start trading dog money.

Thanks for reading,

—Jon Christensen