If you want your workers to be productive, you must create an environment where they feel appreciated and involved. Unfortunately, there seems to be a disconnect between management and employees in this area, according to a new study from leadership training company VitalSmarts.
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The company surveyed more than 1,200 employees, managers, and executives and discovered that employees view their companies' cultures much more negatively than their supervisors do. Additionally, the higher level the boss, the more positively they view the corporate culture.
This disconnect between the C-suite and base-level employees is problematic. Employees were asked what their bosses care about, and employees who believe that their supervisors value "obedience, predictability, deference to authority, and competition with peers" were 32 percent less likely to be committed to their company and 26 percent less likely to rate their organization as successful at innovating.
If managers want to close this perception gap, they have to be willing to accept feedback from their employees. They need to find out where company culture is lacking and then take steps to make workers feel more valued.
"Above most anything else, employees want autonomy and collegiality," says Joseph Grenny, cofounder of VitalSmarts and coauthor of the New York Times business bestseller Crucial Conversations. "These qualities are undermined when the culture promotes obedience, deference, and competition with peers."
According to Grenny, it doesn't take much to foster autonomy and collegiality in your workforce. All you need are a couple of smart management tactics.
"Bosses can promote feelings of autonomy where possible by specifying results that need to be achieved but not the methods to achieve them. Allow skilled employees to find their own best way," Grenny says. "Collegiality can be encouraged by assigning tasks to groups of employees and making them jointly responsible for results. Enabling interaction similarly promotes collegiality, allowing [employees to have] time to socialize, network, share ideas, and consult one another."
According to the survey, 91 percent of employees view their corporate cultures unfavorably in some way. Companies that want to improve this rating need to measure employee engagement and use the results to take action.
"Our research shows that all you have to do to create a negative culture is nothing. And that's what most organizations do – little or nothing," Grenny says. "They talk the talk but do little of substance to create desirable cultural attributes like candor, accountability, autonomy, and cooperation."
Organizations that are "serious" about their cultures should measure their progress toward achieving their ideal cultures at least twice a year, Grenny says. He also believes they need to hold managers at every level – "down to the front-line supervisor" –accountable for "promoting positive culture within their area of responsibility."
"Successful companies also invest heavily in skill building," Grenny adds. "Few people come equipped with the tools they need to thrive in a culture of candor and accountability, for example. Most of us are weaned on habits of deference. We aren't trained from birth to speak our mind to those in authority. Bosses who are serious about a culture of candor need to show employees what that looks like. They must model, train, and then coach them into these new habits."
It isn't just the ground-level workers who are unhappy at the office. The survey also found that 85 percent of managers and executives view their corporate environments with some degree of negativity.
"Organizations with winning cultures have senior executives who understand that culture is the ultimate competitive advantage. Only people can turn strategy into results," Grenny says. "Unless the message from the top is that investing in people and creating norms that promote high performance is imperative, culture change becomes a 'program du jour' and has little staying power."
Grenny says that the executives in companies known for their superior cultures – companies like Facebook, Mayo Clinic, and Southwest Airlines – are "as serious about influencing employee behavior as they are about any other investment."
Follow the Leader
To enact real positive change that will engage employees and increase retention levels, the solution has to come from the top.
The first step is not ignoring the problem.
"Leadership is intentional influence. It is a process of intentionally engaging all of the sources of influence that shape organizational behavior in order to promote carefully selected behaviors that drive corporate performance," Grenny says, "Few leaders understand this. Most ignore culture. A few dabble with it like a charitable hobby. Those who build organizations with lasting advantage understand it is the essence of competitive sustainability."
Employees work harder when their bosses work harder for them. Creating a positive work environment at a company isn't a project that should be sidelined or dismissed.
"There is no way to close this gap without honest, open dialogue," says Grenny. "Basically, people say their leaders hype one set of behaviors but reward another. That gap in perception is the starting point for conversation. If leaders are seen as sending mixed messages about what they truly believe will drive performance, they should invite employees to point out this perceived hypocrisy. Leaders tend to think employees won't open up, but we've seen the opposite. When an executive sits down and truly listens, employees will be surprisingly honest."
If you aren't sure how to enact positive change, just ask. Your employees know better than anyone what needs to happen to improve the work environment.