Street Culture: Threads Touts Holistic Understanding of Employees to Grow Culture

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Sean Abbas, co-founder and president of culture-measuring software company Threads, has two main points to make about about company culture:

The first is that the standard metric for measuring employee performance —  where everything is rated with a number and then they’re all averaged together — is inherently flawed.

The second is that fostering success is not about providing superficial on-the-job perks, like catered lunches and keg Fridays. It’s about whether an employee achieves their goals, and if the company supports the path they take.

The two points are distinct and not always popular. Abbas talks about the first idea, the unhealthy performance review metric, in this video. He describes the moment he realized how important it is to equalize job performance with behavior. At a previous company where Abbas was a member of management, there was one employee who was exceptionally good at his job but treated other employees poorly. When this employee’s manager finally connected with his boss — Abbas — about how it was affecting the culture, a shift in thinking began.

“We brought the employee in, and we communicated to him differently for the first time. And his response wasn’t what we expected. He was angry,” Abbas says in the video. “He said things to us like, ‘You don’t pay me to treat people nice, you pay me to do my job.’ And I stuck to my guns and I said, ‘No, indeed, we are changing what those expectations are. Specifically, you’re required to do both things now. It’s not one averaged with the other anymore.'”

Six-year-old Threads employs 21 people in total, its main office in Cedar Falls, Iowa with satellite offices in Minneapolis and Iowa City, Iowa. Though the company is expanding (with some significant growing pains, he notes), Abbas is still massively frustrated at the way that many companies approach the task of creating culture.

Deficient leadership and procedures are dehumanizing employees, he says. Employees are still being reduced to the wheels and cogs within an organization’s structured processes and procedures.

His second point about culture — that a company should actually care about their employees — is harder to pinpoint.

“There’s a massive lack of leadership,” he says. “We’re turning into more of a society of policies and procedures and data. Employees are finding that they’re being treated like a number. They’re ‘human capital.’ Human capital? Are you kidding me? Really? We call them our most valuable resource, but we treat them like they’re expendable, like dollars and capital. It’s nonsense.”

The Threads metric looks at culture in the terms of company values and results. In this way of thinking, it’s not acceptable to keep employees who are likeable and are friends with everyone in the office if they miss deadlines and make costly mistakes on a regular basis.

“This is not a check of the box,” Abbas says. “This is sit down and talk about expectations, and be truthful about them.”

Employees would rather have an honest conversation about their careers than get a $25 dollar gift card, Abbas says. But more than that, communication is often where the thread frays.

“Just for instance — a younger [acquaintance] said to me the other day: “I applied for a promotion at work, and I went through the entire interview process. The interviews went really well and they told me they would decide on Friday,'” Abbas says. “Well of course Friday comes and there were two employees who were up for the promotion. No one said to either of these two employees what had happened.”

This was where the management failed spectacularly, Abbas says. His young friend, a student who heard him speak about company culture in a college class, had actually gotten the promotion — but no one told him. He was blacked out of any communication from management — there was none — and that opportunity to create growth for a positive company culture was lost by the manager who was too busy or important to tell the young man.

“What [the manager] did here — it was free, it didn’t cost anything — was a disaster for your company going forward,” Abbas said. “It’s literally inexcusable. That is grounds for termination [in my company].”

Abbas says that the Threads software aims to point out issues like this and helps companies describe them and understand how to deal with them.

“Culture is about winning,” Abbas says. “It’s about being successful and dominating competition – but we do so not at the expense of being human and not at the expense of everything around us, just to get sales results. We must re-learn how to communicate. It’s basically stopping to remember that we’re human, remember how we communicate with each other, how we motivate and inspire.”

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.