What If Your Assumptions About Your Culture Are All Wrong?

Before you embark on a culture renovation, make sure you really understand how the current culture is perceived. Technology can help.
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In our research, two-thirds of organizations that successfully changed their culture reported that they first gathered sentiment and related data from the workforce to understand how they viewed the existing culture and ascertain what they’d like the new culture to be.

Too often the senior team assumes they know what the culture represents. Too often, they are dead wrong.

Active and current listening today has become mission-critical for companies. The rise of the #MeToo movement, blatant and egregious corporate and executive misbehavior, ongoing political rhetoric and divisiveness, continuing concerns about bullying and racial discrimination, and the need for inclusive and psychologically safe workplaces all are contributing to a chaotic work environment. Listening to the workforce can help uncover attitudes and issues bubbling under the surface and provide early warning signals before issues become explosive and drastically affect shareholder value.

Would Boeing have uncovered issues with the 737 earlier had they had a culture of listening? Or Wells Fargo before they were eventually fined billions over setting up fake accounts?

Listening isn’t just about preventing scandals, however. It’s about developing a true understanding of employee sentiment and the culture in which employees work every day. And, it’s not that hard. More than ever, employees aren’t shy about expressing their opinions. Like it or not, there are tens of millions of comments about employee experiences on Glassdoor, Indeed, Comparably and other sites or apps, which is the first place most job candidates turn to gain insight on the culture. These platforms and tools provide any employee a bullhorn to broadcast their opinions in seconds.

The concept of employee listening has been greatly aided recently through technology. Natural Language Processing (NLP), coupled with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), is giving employees a way to share their views in their own voice, rather than through Likert scale questionnaires which simply reflect their level of agreement with statements pre-ordained by someone else. While those types of surveys usually allow employees to offer comments, it’s difficult to quickly analyze employee sentiment without having to manually read thousands of survey comments and “bucket” those comments in broad general categories like “communication” or “leadership.” Instead, NLP categorizes sentiment in more accurate categories to allow management to see true patterns and identify emerging issues. NLP research enables organizations to gauge employee sentiment in real-time to capture how employees feel about current events and activities—a marked contrast to the traditional annual employee engagement survey and a far more accurate method to assess culture.

Think about any opinion or sentiment survey you’ve ever taken. Did you ever think that your answers were based on your current mood or influenced by a recent event? Most “point in time” surveys suffer from this. Ongoing, frequent surveys weed this out, and eliminate “false positives” that can occur in companies around a current hot issue that dissipates a few days later. Effective NLP can provide true ongoing sentiment, not the issue-de-jour which infects the typical annual survey.

Despite the superiority of NLP in identifying employee sentiment, annual employee engagement surveys remain popular. Companies spend hundreds of millions on these surveys annually. Our research shows that 89% of organizations reported they used their all-employee engagement survey as a mechanism to measure and/or monitor their organizational culture. But the research also showed no statistical relationship between using the employee engagement survey for this purpose and the firm’s ability to achieve a healthy culture.

From the organizations my firm has talked with, it’s very clear that over the last few years that many companies abandoned the annual engagement survey for a variety of reasons: it’s too slow, cumbersome, expensive and not actionable enough. When it comes to changing culture, fewer organizations are relying on this traditional tool to accurately gauge employee sentiment because they realize business now moves too fast for it to provide accurate data. Instead, they are moving to more frequent, rapid, easier methods to gather sentiment, and to analyze it more efficiently and effectively in order to act more quickly.

• Amazon’s daily question. Some companies are using daily questions to gauge employee sentiment. Amazon, for example, asks their employees one question a day before they log in to the network. The question, though, is often carefully constructed to elicit discussion and healthy debate in the workforce.

One question Amazon has asked in the past, according to an employee: “Is your manager a simplifier, or a complexifier?”

This fantastic question immediately makes all managers question their style, and is a good example of how to leverage pulse questions strategically. In addition to gathering ongoing data, the question-a-day strategy can be used to infuse many different subjects in the workforce around diversity, inclusion, innovation or other topics management would like the workforce to contemplate.

• Microsoft’s ‘culture cabinet.’  Microsoft employs this method as well, along with frequent pulse surveys. The listening strategy was a key component to their renovation, and early on involved many traditional ways of understanding current culture.

“We spoke with experts, senior leaders and VPs, and numerous focus groups with a wide variety of diverse employee groups to learn about their experience, the culture they desired, what we were passionate about preserving from our history, and what we needed to leave behind,” explained Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s chief people officer.

When they were done, Microsoft had more than 50 different ways to describe their aspirations. Then they did a very innovative thing. They assembled a “culture cabinet” to boil it down to simple statements and act as evangelists to roll it out. These statements embodied the growth mindset they wanted to embed—being customer obsessed, diverse and inclusive, and to create “One Microsoft.”

“Together, these would allow us to make the difference we wanted to make in the world,” said Hogan.

Microsoft’s history of taking on bold technological challenges with real impact, and giving back to the world, were examples of cultural attributes they desired to retain. But a highly individualistic and internally competitive culture that feared failure, struggled to collaborate, and as CEO Satya Nadella called it, “a culture of know it all’s,” were attributes Microsoft needed to shed. Says Hogan, “We knew we couldn’t just put out dogma or platitudes. It takes time to tap into something people really care about and want to achieve. That power has real teeth. If people recognize your final destination as someplace they want to go, they will help you get there.”

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