Stop asking employees how to fix your culture

The real key to stopping the rot is listening to what staff aren’t saying, suggests Phil Lewis 

Do you want to know if you have a healthy culture? There’s one thing you shouldn’t do: ask your employees. They will lie to you. Not because they’re bad people or want to mislead. But because the way that all our brains work means around 85 per cent of how we think and feel is non-conscious – it’s hidden from view. So when someone asks us about our attitudes and perceptions about almost anything, we tend to start inventing answers.

It’s tempting to think that people only hide negative attitudes. In a recent client project, when we tested a team's non-conscious behaviour, they felt their culture helped them deliver successful, creative and unique work. Yet they were unlikely to admit this when asked.

We can joke about British modesty. But this speaks to a rather ‘depressed’ environment where people may be lacking either the language or the permission to say anything good. Environments that aren’t built on positive affirmations tend to sap morale.  

How can you spot cultural rot before it’s too late? Advanced psychometrics have a big role to play here, but there are interim steps you can take. Here are just four common complaints – and what to do about them. 

“We don’t know where we’re headed” 

Vision buy-in is essential to a healthy culture. People need a shared sense of the future around which to align. Having a vision isn’t enough: those dog-eared posters won’t get you far. Rather, your people need to feel that vision each day, and be able to articulate what it means for them.

If they can’t do this, you are likely to have a misaligned culture.

What to do: Ask employees at random: “What’s our vision, and what does it mean to you?”. 

“Why bother? Someone’s always going to say no”

Do your people make a habit of predicting that someone is going to say ‘no’ to a course of action – particularly someone who is not in the room? And does this mean that no one will actually dare to ask that individual the question at all?

You might have a cultural issue with conflict avoidance. Effective conflict management is a marker of high performing cultures. All business success relies on reconciling conflicting agendas for commercial gain. No disagreements mean no progress.

What to do: Ensure the conversation does take place and observe where coaching needs exist.

“We’re good at saying hard things – by email”

Conflict avoidance can also manifest in misuse of technology. Email and Slack (and even text messaging) can become channels for conversations that people feel unable to have face to face.

Misuse of technology can allow conflict to fester rather than get reconciled. It also represents a failure to develop the kind of openness and honesty that is a foundation for trust (human beings tend not to function well when trust breaks down).

What do to: Hold a round-table discussion with your staff to explore the role that technology is playing in communication.

“The people we need most are leaving”

Churn is a lagging indicator of a rotting culture – and always an inaccurate one. Are your levels of attrition higher than they should be? Are you losing key people? 

What to do: Forget exit interviews, they won’t yield accurate data. Instead, map all your hypotheses and assumptions about why key people are leaving. Use these as a basis for an open discussion with your senior team (clue: it is almost never about pay). 

Phil Lewis is managing director of organisational performance practice Corporate Punk