It doesn’t work when the company culture is fixed

A senior management team at a medical device company received the results of an annual company culture survey and the feedback was disappointing. Employee feedback indicated a lack of trust in senior management, frustration with heavy workloads and reduced resources, and a desire for streamlined processes and a lack of sophistication. Senior management was understandably concerned, so an action plan was implemented to address the gaps, including town halls, focus groups, new work processes designed to address survey themes, and observations to evaluate the process. The problem? It didn’t work. A year later, employees were re-examined, some improvements were made.

You might think that measures like improved communications or new work streams will be effective in addressing cultural gaps, but here’s something else we know: managing a culture survey and putting a series of steps in place to address challenges is the easy part. The hardest part? Taking the right steps that will work for your organization. When it comes to culture, accuracy counts, and while there’s no silver bullet, consider these elements to make lasting improvements:

The Paradox of Executive Culture. Executives are in an interesting position when it comes to culture survey feedback: they are largely responsible for the current culture and are expected to improve it. At the same time, like any employee, they are part of the culture, and have their own thoughts, feelings and experiences in it. The problem is that this multifaceted role of the senior leader in the cultural dialogue is often overlooked or glossed over. The result is that executives create plans to close gaps in organizational culture that they don’t fully control themselves, or lose sight of how they are unwittingly contributing to the current environment.

Create a safe space for top leaders to shine. Before addressing culture, engage in the right level of dialogue with senior management that addresses the diversity of their roles in culture. Don’t stop there: provide a safe platform for them to think honestly about their own challenges, blind spots, or frustrations with the culture. Give executives the opportunity to uniquely understand how they can add to — or detract from — the current culture.

Right solution, wrong problem. The famous engineer Paul McCready once said, “The problem is that we don’t understand the problem.” He was discussing manpower flight, but he could just as easily have been discussing the challenges that come with improving culture. Consider a technology company that received low ratings in leading communication areas through a recent employee survey. In response, executives have tackled the issue on several fronts: establishing new channels to improve information flow, offering new and diverse vehicles to facilitate access to information.

Check your assumptions. Several months later, when faced with the same negative feedback about communication issues, executives say they were disappointed, but it forced them to pause and consider what went wrong: “It’s easy to see now that we think we know what employees are like.” He said in his opinion. What we haven’t done is validate those assumptions in depth to get to the truth,” the CEO said.

To get to the truth, be creative. Good companies understand the limitations that come with employee and traditional surveys, because according to research, employees may not be honest. It explains why addressing cultural gaps feels like an exercise in so many failed experiments, as one financial services company learned when it held focus groups with women for survey feedback on gender microaggressions. “We asked women to elaborate on their views, so we understood the problems, but in the focus groups, they told us, ‘I’m fine, there’s no problem,’” the CHRO shared. The company tried other measures to raise awareness of the issue, from town halls to ‘culture committees’, but it wasn’t until the CEO met separately with key female employees that the details behind the first culture survey emerged.

Culture changes only happen when leaders accept that culture change is possible and that change is their responsibility. That commitment is important, but it’s not enough if you don’t really understand what’s behind these gaps in the first place. That takes time and effort, but it’s nothing compared to the billions of dollars lost due to toxic cultures, or low ROI companies returning to cultural investments that miss the mark.

Albert Einstein once said, “If I was given an hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute solving it.” It’s a good reminder for organizations looking to overcome enduring cultural challenges once and for all.

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