Closing the culture chasm in today’s evolving business landscape

Today’s organizations are caught in an identity crisis. In years past, companies operated from a fortress-like building. You knew who the employees were because they sported titles, dressed similarly and were located on org charts. That world is rapidly disappearing.

The speed of innovation, global market for talent, and Millennial workforce combine to require new ways of working. Leaders recognize this need, and most believe they are making the necessary organizational changes.

According to a recent study by Deloitte, nearly half of executives report they are in the process of restructuring to align with this faster more flexible model.

However, organizations can’t pivot on a rocky foundation. Companies that operate on an unhealthy culture won’t survive the change required to remain competitive. Unfortunately, our latest research shows that when it comes to culture, leaders are completely out of touch.

Our study presented 1,200 respondents with 13 cultural norms and asked them to identify the norms that were most like their own organization’s culture. Employees and managers clashed on all norms revealing a major chasm.

Leaders optimistically described their culture as valuing initiative, candor, and teamwork. Employees did not agree. Instead, employee experience of the culture demanded obedience, predictability, deference to authority and competition with peers.

These perception gaps mattered. Employees’ negative perceptions led them to be 32 percent less likely to be engaged and 26 percent less likely to rate their organization as successful at innovating and executing.

Below, are a few recommendations for starting a candid discussion about a culture chasm in today’s rapidly evolving business landscape:

Understand the business case. Before you set off to change your culture, be clear about the business reasons for doing so. Leaders who do it as a feel-good strategy turn it into a hobby and tend to create little beyond cynicism. There are hard, measurable reasons for changing culture — like long-term viability — articulate those before you begin.

Focus on vital behaviors. You can’t change several behaviors at once—you can really only focus on a vital two or three. Pick the behaviors that will make the biggest difference in performance.

Google recently completed a comprehensive study to find the link between culture and team performance. The study, dubbed Project Aristotle, was designed to reveal the key vital behaviors of perfect teams — teams that combine superior innovation with best-in-class execution.

The answer came down to cultural norms and the two norms that made the biggest difference in the Google research were: Active Participation and Psychological Safety. In the best teams, members spoke up and participated. This participation came as a result of feeling welcome, valued, and secure within the team.

Listen deeply. Before you can change culture, you need to know where you stand. The best way to do this isn’t with a safe, antiseptic survey administered by outsiders. The best way is for executives to vulnerably engage with the employees. Pair up, and meet with groups of employees. Spend time asking open-ended questions like, “What advice would you give a friend if they came to work here?” or “What does it take to succeed here?”

Take action. Listening creates expectations. Once employees risk sharing their perceptions, they begin watching to see if you’ve really listened. They’ll want to see evidence. Pick a couple of valued and visible concerns and address them quickly. This builds trust in your sincerity to make longer-term changes that may involve the employees themselves changing their behavior.

Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield are bestselling authors, speakers and leading social scientists for business performance. They are also the cofounders of VitalSmarts. Their work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.