Guardians of Corporate Culture: Kick-Starting Employee Engagement

As a business leader, have you ever wondered why the vibe—the beliefs and attitudes—of your workforce are so out-of-sync with the culture you would like to see. Is your staff cynical about change? Do they seem disconnected from the mission and vision for the organization? And, frankly, are there staff that seem openly in rebellion to the direction of the business?

If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you are by no means alone. Many staff groups, or at least significant components of most workforce’s, are simply not very committed to the organizations that they work for. And, of course, there is a tendency for this to be more true with larger, more bureaucratic organizations.

We can pay our employees to apply their mental faculties and their bodies to accomplish the tasks set out before them. However, money does not buy hearts and minds. Staff have to volunteer these one individual at a time. But how do we persuade them to give their hearts and minds to the exciting work that our organizations exist to do?

Indeed this is the holy grail sought by every Human Resource executive—buoyant, committed staff engagement. We often look to traditional compensation packages to motivate people: we pay competitive wages so that people feel fairly compensated. We offer benefits like retirement plans, gym memberships, maybe even an onsite daycare. And these kinds of things are great, but to the frustration of many HR execs, it does not win hearts and minds. At best, these remunerative interventions buy loyalty. And there is nothing wrong with loyal workers who will stay year after year. But if we haven’t got their hearts, often times their loyalty feels like begrudging acceptance of their circumstances.

Are your people excited to make their contribution to the core mission of your organization? Often the answer is that most staff are not. In fact, in many places, staff would have a hard time even articulating what the core mission is. They are complying with work demands but they are not engaged on a deep and/or meaningful level.

Interestingly, these unengaged people do, by and large, have engagement with their immediate work mates. Even when corporate culture is poor—sometimes it is especially true when corporate culture is downright lousy— that staff become most connected and in-sync with work colleagues. Nowhere is this more apparent than with large front-line staff groups. These are the people who actually do the work of the business: they build things, they organize customer accounts, they deliver services, they make real to your customers the good or services you produce. And, they maybe do it with a degree of disengagement and maybe worse: resentment. They are putting in time—and that’s all.

They will, of course, generally take pride in the work that they themselves produce. It is the company itself that they don’t like or appreciate. They treat customers and other front-line staff well, but hold back supporting the overall company mission. They often disconnect from corporate leadership, sometimes dismissing the message that the executive team is trying to convey.

In response to this dynamic, most organizations do one of two things: ignore it, or invest in employee engagement activities that often feel and look like richer benefit packages (more lunchtime speakers, on-site massage, and other goodies). Nothing wrong with any of it, but at best you are getting loyalty, not committed hearts.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating and, often ineffective, interventions is to have members of the senior executive team directly and frequently going out to speak to staff groups. They explain the mission, they reveal near and medium term business initiatives, and they generally do the “Rah Rah” speech that temporarily motivates the troops. But sadly, they do not generally make a big difference to the underlying corporate culture. Why don’t these visionary, articulate leaders have more influence on culture? Because they are not the guardians of any organization’s culture.

The front-line staff create the culture through their dominant shared beliefs and attitudes. ONLY their front-line supervisors have the access, repetition, understanding, and credibility to change the beliefs and attitudes of their direct reports. This first level of management oversight is the guardian of culture. No effort to change, big or small, will meet with pervasive success if this group is not on board.

Consider your own supervisory pool of staff. Very often a great number of these staff came themselves from front-line jobs. They were particularly productive, probably more optimistic, and had better interpersonal skills than most, and so, when an opening for a supervisory role came up, they were a natural choice. And, most likely, they were great choices—in terms of overseeing the work that needs to get done. They understand the work. They have done it. And their staff know it. They don’t get misled about what things are going badly on the line. They push back when staff are putting up unreasonable barriers to getting stuff done. But they also know where the resources seem inadequate. They have seen “change management” initiatives come and go. And they know that a lot of the time, change activities are “flavour of the month”.

First tiers of oversight (supervisors and managers) are often torn between the messaging coming from their superiors and the reality that they share with their staff. This leads inevitably to internal conflicts, where they want to do their best job representing the larger organization, but their integrity also requires them to reflect back the beliefs of their staff.

The intervention is to invest significantly in these staff. Teach them 21st Century leadership skills. They need to coach their direct reports, not simply convey orders. They themselves need coaching. They need to see themselves as role models. They need to be deeply immersed in the vision and mission of the organization. And they need to be taught to use language routinely—in every conversation—that supports the corporate direction.

If some of this appeals to you and you need help, give us a call. We can help you build systems that effectively change broken culture and preserve desired ones.

🙂

Paul Krismer 2016