How to Avoid Creating a Poor Work Culture


Your organization struggles with high turnover, and you’ve noticed that it has poor culture. This just isn’t how you want the company to be.

But how do you fix it?

High turnover and poor culture can seem like a chicken-and-egg scenario: you can’t create a good culture because you’re losing people, but you’re losing people because you have a bad culture. It’s a vicious cycle.

And according to leadership expert Jocko Willink, it all starts with culture. “So how do we start to build a culture inside of an organization?” he asks.

Here’s how.

Model correct behavior

People learn by watching. So you have to show them what your organization does and how you do it.

Let’s say you want to create a transparent culture. That means leadership has to step up to the plate and start telling the employees what’s going on within the company—good, bad, and ugly.

Then when Trevor the Laborer is on the jobsite and sees a problem, he will remember that leadership is transparent. And then he’ll be honest with the boss about what’s going on.

Capture the stories that make you who you are

Many Dirt World companies don't tell stories well—or at all. But as Jocko points out, “That's what culture is. Culture is stories from the past [about] where we came from, what we've done well, and how we do that.”

In the Dirt World, storytelling includes talking about the projects you’ve done, the things you’ve built, the ways you’ve added to your community, and the people who did the work.

You especially want to show the connection between the people who are here and the company that you have.

How to tell stories well

As a Navy guy, Jocko likes to joke about the Marine Corps, but he gives credit where it’s due. The Marines do an outstanding job of storytelling. They released a manual called The Squad Leader Makes a Difference, which teaches Marines how to decentralize command and tells stories about squad leaders who really did make a difference.

“So they enhance not only the knowledge and understanding of decentralized command, but they also enhance the culture of the Marine Corps,” Jocko says.

As a Dirt World company, you’re lucky. You automatically have an incredible story to tell. “A construction company builds the economy inside this country, and on top of that, it builds the everlasting things that make up our landscape,” explains Jocko.

Creating good culture requires you to tell stories about those past projects, why they were great, and the setbacks you overcame to complete them.

You have to talk about people, too. Jocko adds, “If you've got someone who’s been working at a construction company for 28 years, that person's got some stories to tell. So let's tell those stories.”

Then your employees will understand who they are as a company and why they do what they do. That’s good culture.

Create culture internally first

Some construction companies don't want to tell stories. They say, “We don't want to highlight our crew members because somebody will steal them.” Or, “We’ve been around for 100 years. We haven't done that, and we're fine.”

They worry because they assume storytelling has to be external. But it doesn’t. You can tell stories like the Navy SEAL teams instead.

 “When I got in, there was very little external promotion of the SEAL teams. But the culture inside the SEAL teams was strong—oral history, things hanging on the wall, flags from the Vietnam War,” Jocko says.

He adds, “You don't have to be external. You're trying to build the culture inside your company.” So you can share Fred’s story internally, without worrying what will happen if you do.

Share culture appropriately through marketing

Sometimes, it is appropriate to share your culture externally.

“As you bring in people to recruit, you might want to say, ‘Hey check out this thing this guy who's been here for 28 years and this guy who's been here for 24 years. Here's what they've built,” Jocko says. That way, recruits can get a feel for the culture and make sure it’s a good fit for them.

You can also share some of your culture by marketing to potential customers. They need to get a good idea of who you are, what you do, and why you do it. But you don’t have to tell them everything.

Your culture will naturally become apparent to recruits and customers as they get to know you, because there’s no hiding who you are. Marketing just speeds up the process.

Take care of your people, and you won’t lose them

Between the labor shortage and the turnover problem, most Dirt World companies are terrified of losing people. But according to Jocko, that won’t happen if you take care of your people, respect them, lift them up, and give them a pathway to grow in their careers.

Now, that’s not to say you won’t lose anyone ever. You will occasionally. But overall, you will maintain more people when you build your culture correctly—even if someone’s actively trying to recruit them away from you.

“This is not at all remotely unique to the construction industry,” Jocko says. “Every single industry has this exact same thing.”

How you deal with it reveals your company’s culture.

If you’re treating people poorly, Jocko says, “Then yeah, I'm paranoid that someone's going to come in and take them.”

He continues, “If I'm treating my people well, and I know I'm giving them a good job, a good outcome, and a good future, then I'm not worried about losing them.”

And if somebody comes along and offers them a better deal? Then Jocko says be happy for them: “I'm not going to slam the door as they walk out. I'm going to shake their hand and say, ‘Good luck.’”

Build relationships that make people want to come back

Jocko points out many companies lure people in with promises—like a raise, job title, or company truck—that never materialize.

If that happens, you want your former crew member to remember that you treated them well so they’ll come back to you.

 Jocko explains, “I’m building relationships with people, and they're going to want to work with me because I'm going to take care of them. Somebody might lure them away for three months or six months or a year, and then they realize, I got lured away. Jocko shook my hand when I left, and I'm going to go shake his hand and come back.”

Most companies have an attitude that says, “Yeah? Well, screw you!” when people quit. But the smarter companies do it Jocko’s way because that way gets people to come back.

A real world example

Maybe you’ve put a lot of time and energy into building up your best superintendent, but they got this ridiculous deal closer to home. They left for three months, found out all the promises were fake, and came back.

That's a very valuable story to tell.

Now when someone says, “Hey, I'm going to leave the company for a better opportunity,” that superintendent can talk to them and tell his story. They may decide to stay because of what he says about working for you.

“I've seen this happen over and over again,” Jocko says. “Take care of your people, and they're gonna take care of you.”

Take extreme ownership

Jocko teaches the principle of extreme ownership, which means that you take responsibility for what’s happening in your organization.

Many companies have high turnover, and they have a bad attitude about it. They blame the people who quit instead of taking an honest look in the mirror. But Jocko says, “If I have high turnover, man, that's my fault.”

Refusing to take responsibility is like looking at a target in combat and then failing to execute. “You think, Okay, we're gonna be able to do this. And then once you get in it, you forget and you lose yourself and you don't pay attention to the right things,” he explains.

That's why detaching is such an important part of being a leader. When you’re not caught up in the situation, you can think more strategically instead of thinking tactically.

“Thinking tactically is, ‘Hey, if you leave here, you're never coming back. Maybe I can get you to stay.’ That's a short-term possible victory. Long-term, it's a loser. Strategically, it's a loser,” Jocko says.

Strategic thinking helps you create a good culture because you’re planning how to share stories and build relationships over time. Then you become the type of company people want to work for long-term.


Poor work culture creates all kinds of problems—especially high turnover. However, you can avoid creating a poor work culture and, in fact, create a good culture that makes people want to work with you.

Follow Jocko’s advice for pulling it off:

  • Model the correct behavior
  • Capture the stories that make you who you are
  • Create culture internally first
  • Take care of your people, and you won’t lose them
  • Build relationships that make people want to come back
  • Take extreme ownership

Do these things, and your organization’s culture will improve.

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