Recently I was asked to facilitate an executive retreat for the leadership team of a professional services firm. With everyone working from home, the firm came through the pandemic with strong financial results. Client satisfaction was high, and the firm won awards from industry peer groups for the professionalism and effectiveness of their services.
However, the HR leader who hired me did so because morale was very low, and they were losing some of their best people. Assessment and feedback from the leadership team and managers and staff showed vast differences. They’re clearly “two solitudes.” They could have been working for two different companies.
Like most organizations today, the firm has a snappy, well-written statement of mission, vision, and values on their website. The leaders’ assessment of how they were living each core value were consistently 4s and 5s on a 5-point scale. The other solitude – managers and staff – rated how the leaders lived each core value at 1s and 2s.
Declarations versus Applications: The Commitment Continuum
Research and advisory company, Gartner, surveyed 7,500 employees and nearly 200 HR leaders of global companies and had in-depth interviews with 100 HR leaders. They found “on average, 69% of employees don’t believe in the cultural goals set by their leaders, 87% don’t understand them, and 90% don’t behave in ways that align with them.”
In culture development efforts, leaders will strongly declare their commitment to core values like safety, quality, service, engagement, teamwork, integrity, innovation, and the like. Their commitment is a road to lofty values paved with good intentions. We can’t see deep into leaders’ hearts to gauge the depth of that commitment. We can only see behaviors. We designed and use the Commitment Continuum to assess behaviors showing how real that commitment truly is.
This continuum is used in a wide variety of culture development efforts such as increasing safety, service/quality, morale/engagement, new technology, restructuring, and the like.
- Permission— leaders allow managers or staff support people to proceed with the development effort long as it doesn’t cost too much and disrupt the “real business.”
- Lip Service— leaders give presentations and write emails exhorting everyone to improve. Some budgets and resources are allocated to a piecemeal series of “bolt-on programs.” There is no strategic improvement plan, the process is not part of operational management’s responsibilities, and leaders aren’t personally involved in education or training.
- Passionate Lip Service— leaders attend an abbreviated overview of the program being given to everyone else. Some elements of an implementation plan are shakily in place. Passionate presentations urge everyone to comm”improve safety or service/quality or engagement or teamwork or…” They don’t appreciate how clearly leadership flows downhill.
- Involved Leadership— the leader attends all training first in its entirety, then gets trained to cascade coaching or training to others. The improvement effort is the first item on all meeting agendas and priority lists. Managers and supervisors are held accountable and rewarded for their contributions to the efforts. Leaders are changing me to change them and actively leading the way.
- Integration— day-to-day operating decisions are delegated to increasingly autonomous frontline teams. Most of the leadership team’s time is spent with customers, suppliers, teams, and supervisors, gathering input, discussing long-term direction, and energizing the organization’s Focus and Context (vision, values, and purpose).
Where’s your behavior on this continuum for each of your organizational values and/or any improvement effort you have underway? Who says so besides you? What feedback data do you have to pinpoint your position on the continuum? Are you regularly doing a reality check to look for blind spots in living your values or change initiatives?
How about your leadership team? Organizational culture is “the way we do things around here” — especially when the boss isn’t around. It’s behavior that’s expected/rewarded and unacceptable/punished. Those are the organization’s lived or real values. They come directly from the signals organizational leaders send by where they spend their time and what they focus on. That includes leadership team dynamics. How the team functions — or dysfunctions — ripples out to shape organizational culture.
The pandemic has caused lots of people to reassess what’s important. The Great Resignation shows many people see a deep disconnect between what they value and how they feel valued by their employers.