What your employees really think

  • Date:01 Nov 2013
  • Type:Company Director Magazine
Omer Soker suggests three questions to help a board create the culture it needs to meet its strategic objectives.


With the boardroom far removed from the coalface, how do you know if your company has the culture you want? How can you tell if your CEO is getting full engagement, reluctant compliance or mere lip service from staff? And why should the board be concerned with a matter most usually dealt with by the HR department?

Few will doubt the importance of organisational culture in leading companies to success, retaining the best talent, improving productivity and unlocking valuable resources towards collaboration, innovation and growth.

But even the best of us overestimate the openness of the cultures we create, underestimate the challenges for employees to be forthright within them or underrate how quickly cultural shift occurs.

Simple things can forge a gap between the culture we think we have (or would like to have) and the one that really exists. Most often, this occurs from genuine misunderstandings rather than disingenuous behaviour, but both have an effect in misdirecting your culture and increasing the gap between what the workforce can deliver and what it does deliver.

Given that alignment to a company’s values and operating environment drops before individual engagement and performance drops, the board has an important role to play in sending a message of transparency and encouraging employees to speak up about where they feel the company could be doing better, where they are losing engagement and where the blockages to productivity really lie.

The board can actively support the CEO in unearthing the truth about the company’s operations to identify new opportunities for performance enhancement and keep him or her accountable for them. It is not the superficial behaviours that dictate whether your workforce fully engages with your objectives – it is their deeper values, which often remain hidden. In Margaret Heffernan’s Dare to Disagree TEDGlobal talk, she noted that 85 per cent of managers avoid conflict when they should be advocating good disagreement as a path to progress. With so much swept under the carpet in every company, the board can step up and make a real difference simply by reassuring the company that it is open to the truth and new ideas.

Here are three insights every company must uncover:

  1. Who’s most important?
    Is it the customer, the company, the board, the individual, the shareholder, everyone or another group? At a large healthcare organisation, most staff operated with the customer (or patient) as the most important. But one long-serving employee genuinely felt she was the most important because of the professional advice she gave patients. This seemingly innocuous difference in values had a huge (but hidden) negative effect on customer satisfaction because her patients felt their dignity was not being respected. After a short feedback and training session, the employee was then able to align her values with the company’s towards patient needs and began dispensing her professional advice with more empathy and customer focus.

  2. What do your staff members feel?
    Staff (or customer) reactions include their fears, hopes, emotions, ideals, rights and duties. These feelings dictate their level of engagement with all the company’s strategic objectives, but they remain hidden for lack of an appropriate channel to capture these insights. The healthcare organisation spotted low dignity levels among a group of patients and was able to trace this pattern back to the one employee. For example, staff might fear a new proposal could adversely affect the group they’ve identified as most important, or they may feel they have a duty to act in a certain way, or that a particular right should prevail. All these raise questions they need answered or suggestions they would like to voice, but they will often shy away from sharing their feelings. If nothing is done about it, it is at this point that engagement may become reluctant compliance.

  3. How do your staff members think?
    For most companies, this is the starting point and they discuss objectives or issues rationally and openly, but resolution is often difficult because people take sides, thoughts become entrenched and silo mentality kicks in. This is because their values and feelings have not been taken into account, and yet these are the very things that create understanding and unity. If nothing is done about them, it is at this point that reluctant compliance may become lip service. Had the healthcare organisation only tried to discuss its patient complaints issue rationally, it may have missed the key determinant creating the problem. Having access to powerful insights (and analytics) into staff values and feelings enabled it to build consensus, align employee values with its organisational objectives and enhance creative teamwork to deliver better solutions to its customers.

    The board needs to ensure the next cultural audit takes all three steps into account. It should also make it clear that the ensuing discussion over the results does not become a defensive rationale to justify the present, but rather an open debate about how to improve performance. If the employees know the board and CEO are genuinely interested in more than scratching the surface to really get to know what makes their company tick, it may even inspire the 85 per cent of line managers to do the same and open their minds to more forward thinking.

    It will allow you to create the culture you need to meet your strategic objectives.