Creating an entrepreneurial company culture where employees feel comfortable tackling tough challenges and taking big risks isn’t easy, but it isn’t rocket science, either. In fact, you can learn pretty much everything you need to know from studying the behavior of pack animals. No kidding.
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If you give dogs a large, fenced-in area to roam – say a few acres – they will nevertheless stay relatively close to home. After all, dogs, like humans, are pack animals. And their job is to protect and serve the needs of their master and his family, the pack. So that’s what they do. That’s their comfort zone.
Besides, the more time they spend with their owners, the more likely they are to get food and attention. That’s their pay for the work they do. We humans like to call that loyalty but it’s more accurately a symbiotic relationship, a motivational feedback loop that has worked remarkably well for millennia.
But here’s the rub. If, for whatever reason, they perceive that it’s now their job to guard that entire area, and that those outside the fence are a potential threat, their behavior will change. They will become stressed, unruly and aggressive. If you push them beyond their comfort zone, they become fearful, and that’s their response to fear.
People are not much different. After all, at the core of our highly evolved brains lies essentially the same limbic system that governs our response to emotional stimuli that our furry friends have. Yes, of course our intelligence can overrule our ancient survival instincts, but that’s easier said than done.
Most of us are creatures of habit that will generally follow the status quo down a path of least resistance. Going beyond that makes us uncomfortable and fearful. It increases our level of stress and that doesn’t feel great. In any case, that’s a strong incentive to simply fall in line and follow the crowd.
On the other hand, we can become willing to reach beyond our comfort zone and lead if sufficiently motivated. And given the right incentives and conditions, we can learn to overcome our fear of change and taking risks. Over time, we can actually become quite adept at facing enormous obstacles and achieving great results.
If you want to create an entrepreneurial company culture where people consistently reach beyond themselves and question the status quo, employees need three things:
1. Motivation. That’s nowhere near as simple as it sounds. It’s not just about money and it’s certainly not about the popular employee engagement fad. If you want employees to reach for the stars, create a pure meritocracy where their accomplishments and abilities are recognized and rewarded. Even while working toward team or companywide goals, individuals will perform at their best if they know they’ll get ahead if they shine.
2. Training. Obviously, you don’t just give folks enough rope to hang themselves with and say, “Good luck.” You have to provide appropriate knowledge, tools, resources and training so that, if they rise to the challenge and have the talent, they can succeed on their own merits. You don’t want it to be easy, but you also don’t want them to get beat down by failing over and over, either. You have to strike a balance.
3. Mentorship. Managers rarely behave like mentors, especially when it comes to giving employees genuine feedback after the fact. But if managers don’t close that loop, lessons are never learned. We like to say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but that’s only true if you’re made to face your mistakes. Trial and error is how we learn. On the flipside, success breads confidence, but not if it isn’t acknowledged.
Of course every company has its own DNA and every leadership team has its own unique culture, but at a minimum, employees must be sufficiently incentivized, trained and mentored to overcome their natural inclination to follow the pack and their innate resistance to fear and stress.
That’s why high-tech companies like Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) actively look to recruit young up-and-comers who are demonstrably comfortable striking out on their own and taking entrepreneurial risks. Those are signs that they may adapt more readily to an entrepreneurial culture, but that recruiting strategy is far from foolproof.
When it comes to human performance, there’s always a bell curve and entrepreneurial behavior is no exception. Some will rise to the top and become leaders who perpetuate the culture. Some will fail miserably and run off with their tails between their legs. And most will perform somewhere in between. And that’s exactly as it should be in a healthy organization.