Mary had been looking forward to seeing the results from her organization’s annual employee engagement survey. She was proud of the culture the management team had fostered – one that she believed encouraged collaboration, innovation and honesty. She had managed a team of more than 20 people and, from her point of view, believed they felt the same way about the company.
But Mary’s assessment of the culture couldn’t have been more wrong. When she read the results, she couldn’t believe what it said. Team morale was low, trust was at an all-time low and there was a major disconnect with management. Unfortunately, Mary’s story is typical of many organizations.
A new study from VitalSmarts has found an alarming gap between what managers say they want their company culture to be and what employees say is really valued by their bosses. In fact, research shows that leaders say they want innovation, initiative, candor and teamwork to define their culture. What employees feel is really valued at their company is obedience, predictability, deference to authority and competition with peers. When it comes to culture, there’s a real disconnect between management’s perspective and employees’ perspective.
The study also found, after surveying more than 1,200 employees, managers and executives, that employees have a much more negative view of their corporate culture than their bosses do. And the higher you go up the organization chart, the more positive their perception of the company culture.
Why does this matter? Research has revealed that when employees believe that what was really valued was obedience, predictability, deference to authority and competition with peers, they are 32 percent less likely to be engaged, motivated and committed to the organization. This perception also has a major impact on performance: employees are 26 percent less likely to rate their organization as successful at innovating and executing.
Overall, organizations have a lot of work to do when it comes to improving company culture. Only 9 percent of employees have a favorable opinion of their company’s culture. Surprisingly, managers and executives were only slightly more optimistic – 15 percent reported viewing their corporate culture in a favorable light.
While this culture chasm can feel daunting, there is some good news. When it comes to fixing corporate culture, we know the best place to start is with dialogue. In fact, the only way to close this perception gap is with open, honest conversation between employees and their leaders. Employees believe their leaders push one set of behaviors on them but reward another. This is the ideal starting point for dialogue.
If leaders are perceived to send mixed messages about what they truly believe will drive performance, they should invite employees to call them out on the hypocrisy. While many leaders believe employees will not be open and honest with them, we’ve found the opposite to be true. When an executive really listens and demonstrated genuine concern, employees will be surprisingly honest.
Let’s take it a step further. The study reveals that the healthiest cultures exist in organizations where people speak up and hold others accountable. Leaders trained in these skills can better communicate with and manage their teams. They are also in a position to teach these vital dialogue and accountability skills to their employees—cascading them throughout the organization.
So how can leaders begin to open up the lines of communication with employees? Here are four strategies they can take to start a candid discussion about their culture chasm:
Understand the business case
Before leaders set off to change the company culture, they must be clear about the business reason for doing so. The worst thing they can do is implement a feel-good strategy. This has little impact and creates cynicism among employees. There are hard, measurable reasons for changing the culture, and leaders must articulate them before they embark on their journey.
Focus on vital behaviors
Leaders can’t change 10 to 15 behaviors in a company – they can really only focus on a vital two or three. Pick the behaviors that will have the biggest impact on performance and stick with them.
Before leaders can change the culture, they must know where they stand with their employees. The best way to do this isn’t through a survey administered by outsiders. Rather, they should vulnerably engage with employees who know best. Pair up and meet with groups of 8 to 10 employees. Spend at least an hour asking open-ended questions like, “What advice would you give a friend if they came to work here.”
Listening creates expectations. Once employees take a risk to share their perceptions, they start to watch to see if leaders were really listening or just checking off a box. They want to see evidence. Leaders should pick a couple of valued and visible concerns and address them quickly. This builds trust in leaders’ sincerity to make longer-term changes that may involve the employees themselves changing their behavior.
About the author: Joseph Grenny is a bestselling author, speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He is also the cofounder of VitalSmarts. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. www.crucialskills.com.