Skip to content

Employee Engagement

Q&A: Creating great company cultures starts with stripping fear

A version of this post originally appeared on

The way we work today isn’t working – it’s no secret or surprise. Companies are working full steam ahead to keep up with the competition and it’s often their employees who bear the brunt of that pressure.

People are burning the candle at both ends. They’re working more and focusing on their well-being less – and it’s taking a seriously negative toll on their health and happiness. The good news, though, is that leading organizations and business revolutionaries are introducing innovative ways to bring a little more balance to everyone’s lives.

On the heels of our Virgin Disruptors event, I connected with Rich Sheridan, CEO, Chief Storyteller, and co-founder of Menlo Innovations. Rich’s approach to business, people, and company culture is anything but ordinary.

Read the first in a two-part Q&A series with Rich to learn how Menlo Innovations is stripping fear from the workplace – and what that means for employees.

SL: What worries you about the way most companies and their employees currently work?

RS: For many companies, there’s a place for manufacturing fear in the management strategy for managing people. You see this in companies that force-rank their team – and then systematically cut the bottom 10 percent. I see this as a downward spiral of morale and culture.

One of the most commonly quoted statistics is the lack of employee engagement at work. Some reports indicate the percentage of disengagement can be as high as 70 percent. Talk about an energy crisis! What if we could tap into that part of our workforce? What could we accomplish?

My worry is that these same companies are the ones saying they can’t find the people they need. More than likely, the people they actually need have been there all along. Staff members seeking leadership that understands that fear destroys engagement.

SL: You’ve intentionally crafted Menlo Innovations to “remove fear and ambiguity” and bring joy to work. What were the major initiatives you undertook to achieve this?

RS: We use a straightforward formula at Menlo, and it has to start with me. I had to learn to eliminate fear as part of my own personal repertoire for leading my team. I then have to encourage this same approach with everyone who works here. That means I must spend time teaching our culture to everyone who joins the firm.

If people feel safe, we keep adrenaline and cortisol at bay, and individuals begin to trust one another because they are not afraid. When trust forms (and this takes time), collaboration emerges. This eventually leads to the truest form of teamwork, the kind of teamwork that requires neither an organisational chart nor hierarchy. At this point, you get what every company on the planet is seeking: creativity, imagination, invention, and innovation.

We support all of this by keeping chaos out of the mix and avoiding bureaucracy. Our company is run with a very simple, repeatable, measurable, visible structure that’s based on human relationships and that feeds human energy.

We leave no stone unturned: our space, our paper-based visual project management system, our recruiting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, our practices … every one of these things takes into consideration the culture we are trying to create: one focused on the business value of joy.

SL: It seems email is perpetual — send one, get two, three, or a million back. Because of this, I find your email policy incredibly interesting. Can you tell me about it? Additionally, what are the company’s expectations around email when an employee is not at work?

RS: Because we work in one big open room (including me), there’s no need to use electronics to communicate with each other. Our system is different: we call it High-speed Voice Technology. We talk to one another. This system is supplanted by body language, tone, eye contact, and voice. There’s far less room for misinterpreting the message or the messenger. We often hear people ask, “But don’t you want an email trail?” We ask for what purpose? Usually people who need a “trail” are using it to cover their bases. This is typically a strong indicator of a fear-based team.

We also don’t provide electronic access to company servers from outside the office, so when people leave for the day they are DONE working. We typically work 40-hour work weeks, and never weekends, unless travel requires it. Our goal is humanly-sustainable pace over the long term of the detailed software projects we are engaged in. We often hold the lives of people in our hands with the work we do. And even if the software we are building isn’t a medical device, it can still hold the life of the business in its data and operation.

There’s barely a Wall Street Journal front page that doesn’t outline a software failure: coffee chain point-of-sale outages, security compromises at major retailers, airline reservation system failures delaying thousands of flights, governmental systems being hacked by foreign nations and terrorists. Our basic mantra is that a tired team makes bad software. There’s no pride in that – in fact, there’s demoralisation. Deming once said, “All anyone asks for is a chance to work with pride.” We give our team the best possible chance of that happening. The last time our team recalls a software emergency is 2004!

And when people take vacation, they’re forbidden from checking email. We enforce this with comical peer pressure. When Lisa, one of our key project managers, took a seven-week vacation, she didn’t check email once. It was delightful to hear how much she enjoyed the trip with her husband!