Your Employees Aren’t Wearing Your Rose-Colored Glasses

A new survey shows employers have an overly positive estimation of how their workers really feel about their company's culture.
November 08, 2012

In Culture Beat this year, I’ve spent a lot of time describing companies’ efforts to become more collaborative and engaging.  It seems that organizations have transformed themselves into places at which modern employees want to work.

Seems would be the operative word here.  As reported in the Economist last fall, corporate culture expert Dov Seidman’s firm LRN and Boston Research Group conducted a study that demonstrated that leaders’ rosy view of their organizational cultures is not in line with employee beliefs.

The research, National Governance, Culture, and Leadership Assessment, included data from 36,000 employees in 18 countries and was detailed in The How Report: New Metrics for a New Reality: Rethinking the Source of Resiliency, Innovation, and Growth.  The report identified three archetypes describing how businesses generally operate:  Blind Obedience (43 percent), Informed Acquiescence (54 percent) and Self-Governance (3 percent). 

Gulfs in Opinion a Mile Wide

The companies in the tiny self-governing category have astronomical advantages over competitors, including more innovation, stronger employee loyalty, higher customer satisfaction, stronger financial performance, higher resiliency in the face of a crisis and lower levels of misconduct.

Unfortunately, when it comes to whether or not a company is truly self-governing, there is a major gap between the views of C-suite executives and those of their employees: in the U.S., leaders identify their organizations as self-governing eight times as often as the overall workforce (24 versus 3 percent).

There are other gaps too.  For instance, 27 percent of executives believe their employees are inspired by their company, but only 4 percent of the employees agree.  And 41 percent of managers say their firm rewards performance on values rather than financial results, but only 14 percent of employees think this is true.

In other words, C-suiters think they’ve positively revolutionized corporate culture, and their employees, well…don’t. 

How You Can Course-Correct

As a leader, recognizing that your opinion isn’t gospel is a terrific first step.  Then, you have to take steps to bring reality in line with your promising vision.  First, you must be willing to accept that your culture needs work.  This may not be easy, especially if you’ve fought hard for a culture change strategy that hasn’t panned out as well as you hoped. 

It’s tempting to allow your culture to evolve organically, believing that if you say something is true enough times, your employees will eventually fall in line.  As LRN’s research has confirmed, this is not the case.  A company is actually more likely to experience turnover and other negative employee outcomes because its leaders are so out of touch. 

Instead, be purposeful in your desire to get everyone on the same page. Talk about the gap frankly and solicit internal and external feedback on the best way to close it.  If change is required, don’t attempt it in a vacuum because this will result in the same kind of disconnect you’re now trying to eradicate. 

Survey your employees often, and do it anonymously so that they don’t feel pressure to conform to certain expectations.  Take data from exit interviews seriously, because departing employees usually provide the most genuinely helpful criticism.  Measure how you get from Point A to Point B.  And most importantly, stay open-minded.  The ideal of self-governance might or might not be possible for your organization, but only education and discussion will result in the most effective approach for everyone. 

Read more Culture Beat posts. 

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to SuccessMoney Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.