Keeping Talent At Tech Startups Happy - What Works?

Posted on July 18, 2019 by BWBacon. Tagged: Resources for Entrepreneurs, For Clients

Keeping talent at any company is difficult, but the pressures of a startup cause that employee churn rate to go one of two ways. Many newly founded tech companies struggle to keep anyone around for more than 12 months... Money (or running out of money), stress, time commitments, and inexperienced leaders can drive any employee to walk out. But on the other side of the coin, there are some startups who have had the same core team as they have grown beyond 50-100 people.

How can this be? Startups are supposed to be like riding a bike... but the bike is on fire, and the ground is on fire, and you are on fire, and so on and so on... Well, maybe it is from the product development and fundraising standpoint, but it doesn't have a to be on the human-to-human level. Even if the product delivery is struggling and financials are struggling, the team can still be aligned, secure, happy.

What's working for keeping talent happy in these chaotic startup environments...? We found two elements of workplace culture and philosophy that statistically increased happiness, engagement, and retention. And, they are easy to execute on. Take a look!

1) Support, measure and enforce psychological safety as a core tenant of your startup

Most humans, even the toughest ones out there, will try harder to avoid a perceived risk more than they try to achieve a perceived gain of the same level. It's a well-documented tendency and referred to as prospect theory in behavioral science.

One of the risks that many more savvy managers are becoming aware of is the perceived risk of being criticized when a mistake is made. Criticism from a co-worker or boss is processed by the amygdala as a life-or-death threat, which makes perfect sense right? If you fail too many times, you will get fired and your livelihood will be ripped away which could be life-threatening... Or so our brain thinks at that moment. That risk to the psyche is definitely putting in question the "tough-love" approach to management, especially if you are a startup that believes in the Agile methodology.

The failures startups go through are commonly thought of in the Agile/progressive circles as the learning experiences that allow the startup to make an evolutionary step. You have to fail as fast as possible to be able to see what went wrong, learn, and adjust course. The problem is if employees at a startup or any company for that matter don't feel psychologically safe to share that failure as soon as it comes up, they will instead hide it. If they think they will receive criticism for the failure, they will repackage it and present it as a win to make it through the day. This ends up hindering the progress of the company as a whole.

The really interesting thing that happens is when employees feel completely safe to share what's broken and expect collaborative support versus scorn, not only will they feel more engaged with the team and happier, statistically the team will be more successful as a whole. It's a snowball effect of team success, retaining/keeping talent, and company success.

For more details take a look at this Harvard Business Review article on psychological safety and this Google study on successful teams.

2) Do something fun together and "Turn it off -- completely OFF" more often.

What do we mean by "Turn it off?" We mean startup life is intense and all encapsulating, especially if you have investors and board members looking over your shoulder. It's super easy to fall into the trap of being 24/7 work-mode and forget about making space for human connection and friendships. According to a recent study by Officevibe, 70% of employees said that having friends at work is the most crucial element to workplace happiness.

There are so many ways, especially in CO, to turn it off and connect with those around you and even mighty Mother Nature. Take time to go on office hikes, or bike rides, or be proactive in scheduling happy hours or a fun optional activity like bowling, ax throwing (yes it's a thing), or go-karting. Encouraging and fostering friendships is definitely a big win!

Here's a whole infographic on the importance of friendships in the workplace from Officevibe:

11 Incredible Reasons Why Having Friends At Work Is Important (INFOGRAPHIC)

So if you want to keep people happy while they are at the grind, make sure they have the time and space to connect about their lives, make friends, and build their real community. Sometimes by stopping and just being friendly humans together, you end up building better companies.


Here at BWBacon Group, we know and live what you are experiencing as an employer or job seeker in Denver, Boulder, Dallas, San Francisco, New York City or any of the other cities we work in. We believe great recruiting starts and ends with understanding people.

If you have any questions about living, working or playing any of the areas we serve, please contact us. We are happy to help. Seize the day, every day, that’s what we say!