A business executive complained to me about the lax work culture shown by his employees. “Everyone leaves the office by 4:30,” he said. “Where is their commitment to our mission? Where is their commitment to our customers and to get new products out on time?” he asked. He carried with him in his briefcase an aerial picture of his company’s parking lots taken one afternoon at 4:45 p.m., showing them only a quarter full.
The problem wasn’t the company’s mission or its products and technology. The problem of empty parking lots had everything to do about employee work culture. Unfortunately, the employee’s work culture is hidden from executives.
The goal of all cultures is to relay the values, rituals, behaviors, and beliefs about the most important aspect of life: survival. For this executive, the issue for his middle managers and workers was survival at his company. While the company had articulated a powerful customer brand, bold business strategies, excellent technologies and products and services, the workers’ primary focus remained — as it does everywhere else — on their survival.
Executives won’t know the work cultures of their companies because the work culture is in large part a secret sharing of stories about the executives. It is complete with rituals and colorful stories (whether real or heavily embellished) that convey the rules of survival and how to get ahead.
What workers talk about are the problems they see and how open they can be about those problems and the potential fixes with management. They also discuss the shortcomings of their customers’ experiences. What is it like to work for this leader versus that leader? Who is fair? Who is not?
If you offer a solution to improve the company, will management want to know more about it or shoot you down for raising your hand?
In some companies, the best tactic for survival is to stay hidden. For other companies, it is to dig in, get on a team, work hard, and show management what you can do. But the latter requires that employees trust their leaders and co-workers. It requires a culture that will not just tolerate risks and initiatives—but reward the employees who take them.
The question for executives is how closely is the work of your company tied to the survival of your workers? Are they critical to your success? Or are they expendable? Is the work fulfilling? Are employees eager to tell friends and family about the exciting innovations they are working one? How collaborative are their coworkers? How supportive are their leaders?
Or is it just a job?
Many executives believe that culture is amorphous and can’t be measured. Nothing is further from the truth.
We know from empirical research that culture is measurable and manageable. The accurate measurement of culture requires the use of validated employee surveys which can be benchmarked with the work culture of other organizations, preferably from the same industry. Companies that use unscientific surveys or surveys that were created overnight by well-intentioned managers on SurveyMonkey will struggle to provide the necessary information to measure work cultures and will usually fail to offer guidance on how to positively change their work cultures.
But the empirical evidence is clear and consistent:
John Kotter’s early work in the 1980s on work cultures showed that organizational cultures can be measured and that some companies had cultures that limited their ability to change and be successful in the marketplace[i]. Other companies had developed “adaptive cultures” that allowed them to change and adapt continually. The companies with adaptive cultures achieved substantially higher profitable growth than others in the study.
Daniel R. Denison in his 1990 book, Corporate Culture and Organizational Effectiveness, also found that collaborative and adaptive organizational cultures can substantially improve the financial performance of organizations — and that validated employee surveys can predict financial performance.[ii]
Brooke C. Dobni in his study of innovation work cultures seven years ago identified the 12 dimensions of highly innovative cultures. Companies that scored in the top quartile on his empirical assessment of innovation cultures had 22% higher financial performance than the lowest quartile.[iii]
If you want to dramatically impact the accountability, innovation, and financial performance of your work cultures, start by accurately measuring your work cultures. This can be done with an empirically developed employee-survey that assesses your organization’s work culture, and its sub-cultures. The best of these surveys will also provide benchmarks of your results, recommendations to manage the culture change, and improve your organization’s innovation and financial performance.
Begin to understand the motivations of the various cultures of your middle management and workers. Learn about the obstacles from within your organizational due to hierarchy, information flows, processes, decision rights, and what does and doesn’t get rewarded. Learn what has been the outcome for employees who previously took the initiative and tried to make a difference. Learn the traits of highly innovative companies and how they are different from the lagging innovators.
When you begin to understand work culture, have regular measures for it, and begin to inspire and manage innovation, you won’t have to worry about how many cars are in your parking lot at 4:45 p.m.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults and provides “hands-on” support for innovation, global talent strategies, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Visit http://www.victorhrconsultant.com to learn more and to download valuable free reports.
[i] John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett, Corporate Culture and Performance, Simon and Schuster, 1992.
[ii] Daniel R. Denison, Corporate Culture and Organizational Effectiveness, 1990.
[iii] C. Brooke Dobni, (2011), “The relationship between innovation orientation and organizational performance,” Int. J. Innovation and Learning, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2011. Copyright 2011, Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.