Employees and Managers Are Poles Apart in How They View Workplace Culture


Here's what leaders want from their company culture, according to a new survey:

  • innovation;
  • initiative;
  • Candor; and,
  • Teamwork,

OK, that all sounds good, however the very same survey found that employees feel that this is really what leaders want and value from them:

  • Obedience,
  • Predictability,
  • Deference to authority; and,
  • Competition with peers.

Perception gaps impact motivation and engagement

Yes, there is a pretty big perception gap here, and that has to be a concern for any organization that is trying to build a strong culture and leverage it for business advantage.

The study, conducted by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, co-founders and researchers at the training company VitalSmarts, surveyed more than 1,200 employees, managers and executives and found that -- no surprise -- employees have a much more negative view of their corporate culture than their bosses. And, the more senior a person is in the organization, the more positive their perception of their company culture.

And these perception gaps matter—a lot, as the survey found. As the analysis noted:

When employees believed that what was really valued was obedience, predictability, deference to authority and competition with peers, they were 32 percent less likely to be engaged, motivated and committed to their organization. This perception also had a dramatic impact on their performance. They were 26 percent less likely to rate their organization as successful at innovating and executing."

5 "norms" with the biggest management-employee gaps

Survey respondents were presented with 13 cultural "norms" and asked to identify which norms were most like their own culture. Employees and managers clashed on all 13 norms, but the chasm between employee perception and management perception was statistically widest on five norms:

  • Norm is to avoid conflict and maintain pleasant relationships — At least It’s important to agree with, gain approval of, and be liked by others. (Employees were 54 percent more likely to say this is extremely like their culture than leaders.)
  • Norm is to conform, follow the rules and make a good impression. Conservative, traditional and bureaucratically controlled. (Employees were 53 percent more likely to say this is extremely like their culture than leaders.)
  • Norm is to do what you’re told and clear all decisions with superiors. Hierarchically controlled and non-participative. (Employees were 54 percent more likely to say this is extremely like their culture than leaders.)
  • Norm is to set challenging goals, establish plans to reach these goals, pursue them with enthusiasm and achieve them. Important to pursue a standard of excellence. (Employees were 18 percent less likely to say this was extremely like their culture than leaders.)
  • Norm is to speak up immediately whenever there is a question or concern that could affect performance. People speak truth to power; are both honest and respectful. (Leaders were 67 percent more likely to say this was extremely like their culture than employees.)

Wanted: Open, honest dialogue

Here's a number that should shock all managers and executives: According to the survey, only 9 percent of employees have a favorable opinion of their culture. Managers and executives were a bit more optimistic with 15 percent reporting they viewed their corporate culture favorably.

Joseph Grenny, one of the survey authors, says that when it comes to fixing corporate culture, the place to start is with dialogue.

There is no way to close this gap without honest, open dialogue. 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.”

My take: Although the results of this survey are pretty stark and compelling, they shouldn't be that big a surprise for anyone who has spent much time in the working world. Organizations have been preaching one set of values while actually fostering something entirely different for about as long as there have been workplaces.

So, that's not all that new. The question is, how can it be fixed -- if it ever can be repaired -- when such hypocrisy is seen as an ongoing practice in our organizations?

For my money, this kind of behavior is one of the big reasons why employee engagement continues to lag, year after year, in the 30 percent range, as Gallup continues to point out. It's hard to get employees to work harder and care more about the company when leaders continue to say they want one thing yet clearly seem to value something else.

Yes, this is really an engagement issue

This gap -- let's call it a "culture" gap -- not only creates a negative workplace environment, but it actually disengages employees by making them doubt the sincerity and motives of their managers and executives.

Engagement, at its core, is a cultural issue. If you can fix the culture by getting senior managers to practice what they preach, and get employees to trust that what they say they want is what they really mean that they want, my guess is that engagement will dramatically improve to.

And if you do that, you can quit spending all that money on engagement consultants who will charge you a lot to basically just tell you what I did.

There's more to the VitalSmarts survey, including some leadership strategies for having candid conversations with employees, but the most candid one of all is just being truthful and forthright in that what you say is what you mean. If you start there, you'll find everything in your workplace will get a lot better.