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How We Fell into the Pit of Fear and Climbed Our Way Back Out

By Brittany Morton and Corissa Neimann, November 28, 2017

Menlo has a reputation for being a somewhat ideal company to work for. In a world of 24-hour tech support and 80-hour work weeks, we are praised for our work-life balance and our team mentality. We’ve received numerous awards for our culture and approach to producing joy in our workplace. We give tours and classes on our processes and how they contribute to our joyful culture. But we aren’t perfect. This last year we found our culture and our team being put to the test in a way we never anticipated.

Right in the middle of a key business decision to transition from a subcontractor model to an employee model, a significant amount of client work fell through. Suddenly, we were facing huge expenses and significantly less revenue than we’d planned for.

 So, what happened? Fear crept into our culture. 

Inside an organization that prides itself on pumping fear out of the room and practicing total transparency, fear found a foothold. Like a cancer, fear spreads through an organization with silent but deadly reach. How did we screw this up? How did we let it take our culture hostage? Even with all the processes and cultural pillars we put in place to prevent a fearful environment, we are still only human.

Yet, this is where the unique culture of Menlo was able to come to the rescue. Sure, we tried the traditional approach to calming our fears, like leadership pep talks and team meetings. But nothing addressed the whirlwind that is the lizard brain, and our fight or flight reflexes were in full bloom. We focused on guaranteeing results, instead of making mistakes. We sacrificed our processes to “go faster” and “get work done cheaper”. This only produced less than satisfactory results for the clients entrusting us with their software needs

We couldn’t get the fear out of the room. The team still felt helpless and worried about our unknown future. 

But we were finally able to overcome the infiltration by relying on our relationships and  cashing in on the trust we had built with each other. We admitted to each other how afraid we were and we listened compassionately to one another’s fears. A pair of Software Developers even set out to collect all the sources of fear and share them back anonymously with the rest of Menlo, proving voices weren’t getting lost in the abyss.

We then doubled our efforts to understand our financial situation as a group, and we created different scenarios to walk through as a team. Slowly, we began to pump trust back in. As our fears were exposed, our humility increased and our energy improved; we were able to get back to what we do best. We spread our culture of joy to our visitors and clients. As our confidence grew and we gave ourselves permission to make mistakes once again, we took more chances and soon found we were attracting new clients once again.

One year later we have overcome our brief downturn. During that entire time, we did not downsize by even one employee, nor did we stop our conversion from a subcontractor model. We didn’t handle it perfectly, but the lessons we learned along the way have equipped our team to deal with the next rough patch we encounter. These lessons have allowed us to better serve our clients and each other and to further strengthen and support the culture of joy we’ve all come to rely on.