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When it comes to building a culture of collaboration and teamwork, keeping things simple can sometimes become a complicated task.

As principal of architectural and interior design firm Vocon Inc., Debbie Donley has built trust and confidence in her employees by adhering to a few simple rules — seek employee input, maintain a flat organizational structure and treat your employees like the adults they are.

Adhering to those principles has helped Donley minimize turnover and keep the company — which generated $15 million in 2008 revenue — both culturally and financially sound in a faltering economy.

Smart Business spoke with Donley about how you can build an employee-oriented culture at your business.

Q. How do you develop a culture of collaboration?

It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. Your actions have to give everybody permission to participate in that kind of culture. If you say you’re inclusive but then turn around and make decisions on your own, it’s not going to work. It has to be a grassroots kind of effort in order to have that leadership style.

Q. How do you develop an organization to remain flat?

One of the challenges of building an organization is keeping it flat while still having accountability matrices in place. It’s always an uncomfortable conversation when you’re saying to your management team — in our case, studio directors — that you want to be casual and inclusive and democratic but still telling them they’re accountable for the profitability of their groups. But you can balance it. It’s not a free for all — otherwise we wouldn’t be financially stable like we are, even with a slowing economy.

Q. How do you build accountability into an organization?

It’s really just communicating what your expectations are. You have to make that clear, because when you don’t know what your expectations are, it confuses everyone around you. That’s why we’ve really worked as a management team to become better communicators, not just with our internal management group but with the entire firm.

Honesty and trust are the keys to good communication. Like a lot of companies, we have been forced to make some tough decisions in terms of layoffs — the first time we’ve had to do that in 21 years of running the firm. We laid off a group of folks, and afterward, it was really tough to stand up in front of everyone and explain why, but you just have to be honest.

That is what we’ve tried to be along the way, because if you lose the trust in employee relationships, everything just kind of spirals backward and it becomes really difficult to correct. So it just comes back to being honest. We have good things that happen and we share those, and sometimes we have setbacks and we share those. It’s better than just letting everyone be surprised about what is around the corner. So try to be as transparent as you possibly can about your situation.