How to handle culture enemies

Alex Nicolaus on how to maintain your organisation’s soul as it grows.

The responsibility of any leader in the area of people and culture is to ensure that the company culture is clearly articulated and continually communicated internally as well as externally. These leaders would never label an employee who doesn’t like or enjoy a culture as a ‘culture enemy’.

Employees who join an organisation are never cultural enemies to start with, or else they wouldn’t join.  Most employees join a business with the best intentions, but become cultural enemies over time, because the culture they thought they had joined either changed dramatically or was never really defined to start with.

The responsibility of having a well-defined culture resides with the leadership team and more specifically with the chief people officer. You have to work hard to create a culture so that only the right profiles join your business and ensure your culture doesn’t change over time.

Culture can evolve, but it should always remain true to your company’s origins, in order to avoid your employees becoming culture enemies.

Whatever the size of your business, you should never change the culture entirely. It still needs to keep its core essence

So what causes one company to have one type of culture, and another a different one and why do cultures change? One of the biggest determinants of culture is often thought to be whether an organisation is a corporate or a start-up. People often believe they are better suited culturally to one environment over the other.

But there are actually many elements both have in common. The willingness to challenge and disrupt the marketplace is key, as is the ability to feel unfazed by the impossible. Having a growth mindset, being ambitious, wanting to make a difference, and loving innovation are also important.

Cultures will vary by industry and product type, and also by geographical location, but what unites them is this intensely entrepreneurial approach.

Many start-ups see the need to hire people from a corporate background in order to professionalise the business as it grows. There comes a tipping point for every start-up, at which it realises it needs to comply with regulations and external market forces.

For instance, if it wants to attract experienced managers it has to be more structured in the way it pays them, and to provide the benefits expected by someone at that level.

For smaller businesses, one of the challenges they often face is adapting their culture, as their revenue increases and their company becomes more complex.

If you want to carry on driving employee engagement and retention, you can’t just stick with the same type of culture as when you were half a dozen people in a single office. In the past, organisations would take 10 years to move from one phase to the next, but now it’s six months to a year.


You can’t afford to take your eye off the culture ball, because if you do there will be a mismatch between what the employees expect and are getting – resulting in some employees becoming culture enemies.

It’s not the case that nothing should ever change about a company’s core values; if it’s necessary to make a shift, then you should do it. Some of the largest and most successful organisations in the world have transitioned their culture from when they began.

In the 60s, Nike’s vision was all about crushing Adidas, and in the 70s, Honda’s mission was to destroy Yamaha. As they grew they realised these visions would only get them so far, so they became more expansive.

Nike now looks “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” and Honda exists to “serve people worldwide with the joy of expanding their life’s potential by leading the advancement of mobility, and enable people everywhere in the world to improve their daily lives”.

However, whatever the size of your business, you should never change the culture entirely. It still needs to keep its core essence, the thing that makes it special. It’s only the outer layers that should change. If you look at Facebook, in many ways it had a different culture at the beginning to the one it has now.

Today it accepts that ‘move fast and break things’ isn’t as applicable to a mature business as it was to a startup, and that it needs to take more responsibility for aspects of its business such as advertised content.

For bigger businesses, one of the greatest challenges can be that an organisation’s ‘soul’ can die as it grows, and its core values start to erode. Maybe the leaders didn’t appreciate or understand what made the business special, or didn’t keep managing the culture while they focussed on growing the business.

In a period of frantic expansion it’s tempting to throw yourself into action mode, concentrating on quick-win tactics. This is okay if your commitment to your vision and mission statement remains steadfast, but problematic if it doesn’t.

Someone in your business (preferably you) has to keep bringing everyone back to why you started in the first place. What do you believe in? If expanding into a new country or signing a lucrative new contract doesn’t align with your core values, you need to stand up and say no. 

Otherwise, this will dilute what you stand for and your people will start to drift, because the culture they had joined isn’t there anymore and slowly become culture enemies.

In summary, if you invest time early on to define and articulate your culture you will decrease the chances of hiring the wrong individual who could in turn could become a culture enemy.


About the author

Alex Nicolaus is the head of people and culture at Paysend and author of Startup Culture: Your Superpower for Sustainable Growth


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