The Impact of a Positive Office Culture

Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, is author of the bestselling book “Delivering Happiness.” The book is a quasi-autobiographical account of Tony’s entrepreneurial successes, including an Internet-based company “Link Exchange” that he sold to Microsoft for $265 million. Tony recounts that he decided to sell Link Exchange when the culture went down hill, and he no longer felt a connection with his employees.

In his book, Tony writes that Zappos, to keep the culture strong, only hires people they want to hang out with — and it seems to work! Today, Zappos culture is legendary. From impromptu zombie parades to “bald is beautiful” shave your head contests, Zappos seems a hybrid between fraternity, cult and family.

Culture in Group Counseling Practices

Today, the cultures of many group counseling practices struggle. Here are some common scenarios:
1. The counselors are independent contractors, work several other jobs, and have practices of their own on the side. As soon at their solo-practice caseloads fill, they’ll quit your “gig.”

2. Seasoned clinicians won’t abide by anyone’s rules but their own. Clinical notes are late, and in the wrong format. They aren’t on board with company initiatives. In fact, they won’t turn off a light or close a door behind them, because that’s not their job.
3. The psychiatrist sees as many clients as possible, as quickly as possible, and then gets the heck out the office as soon as possible. He has never attended a staff meeting. Stay away from his parking space, and you won’t have a problem.

4. The manager/owner is also a clinician with a caseload of her own. She is overworked, overstressed and struggles to juggle basic company operations. Building culture seems like an unaffordable luxury.

Culture is not a luxury — it’s a necessity. Culture is the glue that holds a company together. Without it, morale and quality suffer, employee turnover increases, and recruiting new staff becomes more difficult.

Zappos purports that culture starts with hiring, and they’re right. At my company, we hire talented, experienced staff. But we also spend a lot of time making sure a new clinician is a good culture fit. We hire those who will get along with the team, and who embody our mission of positive, empowering therapy.

However, unlike Zappos, we don’t subscribe to the “we must want to hang out with you” philosophy (we’ve hired clinicians in their early 20s and in their mid 70s. They’re not hanging out). Instead, I prefer Tina Fey’s rule: “Don’t hire anyone you wouldn’t want to run into in the hallway at three in the morning.”[i]

Culture starts at hiring, but it doesn’t end there. As manager, it’s your job to cultivate positive company culture.

Things I Tried that Failed!

Company culture is a hot topic today, and if you read business books or magazines, you’ll encounter scores of methods on how to promote a positive one. Here are two in vogue suggestions I tried … that flopped!

Transparent Finances

Some contend that to cultivate a strong culture, a company should share their finances with employees. That way, employees can rally with you when times are bad, and rejoice with you when times are good! In fact, if finances aren’t transparent, you likely have a “control issue.”[ii]

I tried this. I drew up reports and charts, and called meetings to explain company profits, losses, margins and payroll. Employees’ resounding response: “This has nothing to do with me!”

“Of course it does!” I said, and pointed again to my spreadsheets, “See!?”

In the end, I learned that my team doesn’t care how much money the company makes (or doesn’t), as long as they feel that they’re well compensated for their role.

Unlimted PTO

Today, it’s in vogue to offer employees unlimited PTO. The theory suggests that unlimited PTO promotes a culture of trust because, “What does it matter how many days employees take off as long as they get their work done?”

So, I tried it with my admin staff. Surprise! Some people used A LOT of PTO, while others felt cheated for coming to work while their counterparts were off.
Morale didn’t improve. Productivity didn’t improve. It might seem obvious, but employees are more productive when they’re, well, working. We have since switched back from “unlimited” to generous amounts of PTO, and our culture is better for it.[iii]

Things I Tried that Work!

To date, we have had no zombie parades, or “bald is beautiful” events. We don’t have an office cat (allergies), and my idea of putting a 1980s arcade machine in the conference room was vetoed. Still, we do a lot to build culture.

Respect and Gestures of Caring

At our company, more than half of our mission statement addresses our employees, and we mean every word. Here’s an excerpt: “Thriveworks, at its core, is its team of people … We work to engender great loyalty in the team members of Thriveworks and hope that we are successful in developing and maintaining their loyalty to the point that they elect to stay employed with us for life.”[iv]

We truly care about our team. If someone has a problem, at work or otherwise, we try to help. We respect our employees, and value their contributions. We are honest. We strive to be generous. We are finally remembering to celebrate birthdays and employment anniversaries (and new babies). For a long time, I thought doing this was too much of a cliché. But we want to honor our employees at every opportunity, and they really seem to appreciate the acknowledgements.


Counseling is an isolating profession. While you are with people all day in session, the focus is 100 percent on the clients. Hence, many counselors in private practice apply to work with us because they are looking for colleagues to connect with in-between sessions.


Mission affects culture. If your company leadership is serious about its mission, your team will get serious about it also. A company should always be able to answer the question: “Why are we doing what we’re doing?” If your employees believe the company is truly dedicated to a valuable mission, you have the genesis of a strong culture.


People need to feel that they’re making progress in their careers. With clinical staff, up until recently we would hire great counselors, pay them well, and help them to fill their caseloads. However, once their caseloads were full, there was little opportunity for progress. How demoralizing after two, three or five years to still be doing the same work, with the same title, without any path to something more?

In response, we developed something we have never seen before in the industry: 10 levels of Counselor Rank. Now, clinical staff, through tenure and excellent performance, can be promoted 10 times, from “Fellow,” to “Senior,” to “Master” clinician, and each level brings with it greater compensation, including perks ranging from paid education to paid vacations.

Your Practice, Your Culture

Creating culture isn’t easy, and there’s no one right way go about it. As you begin to build your company’s culture, some things you try will work, and some things will likely flop. However, even when you miss the mark, your team will notice your efforts, and see that you care, and that is perhaps the most important culture-building ingredient.

[i] Bossypants, Tina Fey (2011), Reagan Arthur Books
[iii] Proprietors of unlimited PTO will say I did it wrong. This is seemingly always the answer, if unlimited PTO doesn’t work for a company.

Counseling Private Practice
Dr. is CEO of Thriveworks, is Private Practice Consultant for the American Counseling Association, and Author of “How to Thrive In Counseling Private Practice.” Learn more at

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