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Start-ups suck at celebrating.
I’m not kidding. I know the common perception is that start-ups, unlike their large company counterparts, know how to balance fun and work. There are bean bags and nap rooms. There are fully stocked bars and arcade games. Yoga classes are taught onsite, and bowtie-wearing baristas are omnipresent.
But those are creature comforts — not celebrations.
Work, nap, hit milestones, repeat. Push code, deploy customers, identify bugs, document changes, repeat. There is a rhythm to high-growth start-up life. There is an intensity that is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Founders identify the North Star — the gap in the world their company aims to fill — and teams passionately follow.
But work too long, with too little relief, with too little recognition, and danger lurks even for the highest flying companies. Burnout is not always about an individual. Teams can burn out. Entire companies even. Companies are collections of humans, and energy is shared even if no words are spoken.
So what to do? There are many tactics. One-on-ones, all-hands meetings, performance reviews, etc. When done well, all can serve as pressure release valves for an engine running too close to red. But celebrations have some advantages those other tactics do not.
The difference is that celebrations remind us that we’re humans, not machines. We smile, we laugh, and we connect. Celebrations also fuel momentum. Start-ups are lengthy journeys, and morale can atrophy waiting for major milestones to occur. Even a small celebration can remind the afflicted of the goal at the end of the struggle.
Ever tried and trained a pet? What works better, yelling to dissuade bad behavior or rewarding good behavior? It’s not close. Humans are easily conditioned, creatures. If there are celebrations intermittently delivered for work exceptionally done, superior performance will follow.*
…and no, I’m not equating our team members to domestic animals; just referencing that both carrots and sticks are required to affect change.
For those of you who think a bit more party energy might benefit your workplace, here are suggestions for getting started.
You plan everything else? Why not celebrations? You likely can estimate when you’re going to achieve important objectives such as users, customers, or product releases. You know when key employees pass anniversary dates or receive promotions. We spend so much effort making sure the functional pieces of our companies hum, yet we often neglect the humans involved.
For some companies, it’s natural to praise sales and marketing. But what about the product org? The engineers? Or the unsung members of finance, legal, HR, or customer support? If you look, there are good stories everywhere.
I feel CEOs often fall into the trap of hearing “celebration” and imagining a parade down the main street or flying the entire team to Cabo. A letter to the team, a plaque on a wall, a surprise lunch invitation — all can serve as a public way of acknowledging a job well done.
Humans connect with rituals. If you’ve lived in the US for any length of time, then blowing out candles, eating turkey on Thanksgiving, or tailgating prior to a sporting event all ring familiar. My last company struck a Tibetan gong as a means of celebrating wins. The sound of that gong meant momentum, success, and recognition. It took just a few minutes to gather together, hand the mallet to the employee most responsible for the good news, and let the sound reverberate across the entire team.