Is There a Culture Gap Between Your Leaders and Employees?

By Joseph Grenny

There are at least two sides to every story, and according to recent research from VitalSmarts, there is a huge chasm between how leaders and employees perceive their companies’ cultures. For more on this communication and culture gap, we present an article by Joseph Grenny, a best-selling author, speaker, and cofounder of VitalSmarts.

It was time for the annual employee engagement survey, and Daniel was eager to see the results from his team. He had a good rapport with his direct reports and had worked hard to foster a good vibe. He was sure his team’s positive scores would serve to show his higher-ups that he was a good leader—someone worth investing in for the long run.

So, imagine Daniel’s surprise when the scores were in the toilet. Not only was he disappointed that his team members felt so disconnected, but he was also confused how his perception was so far off. How could he and his reports see things so differently? What was wrong?

Unfortunately, Daniel’s story is typical of many organizations. A new study from VitalSmarts found an alarming gap between what managers say they want their company culture to be and what employees say is really valued by their bosses.

According to the study, leaders describe their culture as one of innovation, initiative, candor, and teamwork. But what employees feel is really valued is obedience, predictability, deference to authority, and competition with peers. When it comes to culture, management is out of touch with the day-to-day experiences of their employees.

VitalSmarts found, after surveying more than 1,200 employees, managers, and executives, that employees have a much more negative view of their corporate culture than their bosses. And the higher up an employee is on the organizational chart, the more positive his or her perception is of the company culture.

Why does this matter? The truth is that a culture chasm has a huge impact on performance. Disheartened employees were 32% less likely to be engaged, motivated, and committed to the organization, and 26% were less likely to rate their organization as successful at innovating and executing.

So what can leaders do to begin repairing the cultural rifts across teams and organizations? When it comes to fixing corporate culture, the best place to start is with dialogue. In fact, the only way to close this perception gap is with an open, honest conversation between employees and their leaders. Employees believe their leaders push one set of behaviors on them but reward another. This is the ideal starting point for dialogue.

If leaders are perceived to send mixed messages about what they truly believe will drive performance, they should invite employees to call them out on the hypocrisy. While many leaders believe employees will not be open and honest with them, we’ve found the opposite to be true. When an executive really listens and demonstrates genuine concern, employees will be surprisingly honest.

Let’s take it a step further. The study revealed that the healthiest cultures exist in organizations where people speak up and hold others accountable. Leaders trained in these skills can better communicate with and manage their teams. They are also in a position to teach these vital dialogue and accountability skills to their employees—cascading them throughout the organization.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, Grenny shares four strategies for closing the corporate culture chasm.