Back in 2017, Deloitte listed organizational culture, employment brand, and an engaged employee experience as top priorities for that year. In its research, Deloitte found that nearly 80% of executives rated employee experience as critical to the business, yet only 22% reported that their companies were adept at building a “differentiated employee experience.” Perhaps more distressing, 59% indicated that they were not ready to address the challenge of undertaking the organizational changes necessary for enhancing the employee experience. Flash forward to 2020. The topic of creating a rich and rewarding culture remains just as urgent, especially in light of high-profile problems at companies like Boeing, which have revealed the dangers of stifling worker feedback, honesty, and constructive concerns. This is precisely where a comprehensive managed services provider (MSP) can deliver a total talent solution to help your contingent workforce flourish.
The Consequences of Culture
Countless studies have demonstrated the profoundly positive effect that values-based cultures have on talent productivity, company performance, profits, and brand. Deloitte researchers Sonny Chheng, Kelly Monahan, and Karen Reid discussed how building exceptional cultures will matter even more as the nature of business and the workforce changes:
“Workers who perceive their very human need for meaning and purpose as being met at work exhibit higher levels of performance and put in greater discretionary effort. Beyond simply work output, culture is also a powerful driver of engagement, which has been linked to better financial performance. This is why, at many organizations, leaders strive to deliberately shape a culture that encourages employee effort and collaboration around a shared set of values.”
The situation gets more complicated when we consider the impact of culture as contingent talent and alternative work arrangements enter the picture:
“Under the new realities of the distributed and contingent workforce, employers face the growing challenge of fostering a shared culture that encompasses all of their workers, on- or off-campus, on or off the balance sheet. In this effort to achieve consistency of culture across all worker types, both location and employment type have distinct implications; therefore, leaders need to develop a nuanced strategy to extend organizational culture to alternative types of workers.”
Culture has the power to add or delete value from an organization. Consider an article from the Human Capital Institute (HCI) about how different workplace environments empowered companies to outperform tough competitors. In 2009, the most valuable Fortune 500 companies ranked in the top five were Exxon Mobil, Walmart, AT&T, and Johnson & Johnson. Many of those enterprises had lingered in those vaunted heights for decades, largely because of financial performance, supply chain optimization strategies, and stellar consumer branding. But that changed nearly a decade later:
“Fast forward to 2018. Four of those most valued companies have dropped from the list, replaced by Alphabet (Google), Apple, Amazon, and Facebook. Only Microsoft made the list of top five companies in both 2009 and 2018. How did these five companies reach the top? It’s not because of strategy. It’s because of culture. Each organization forged an intentional workplace culture that positioned them for success and created value.”
What Is Corporate Culture?
Admittedly, attempting to lend a solid and ubiquitous definition to such a nebulous concept has made the term “corporate culture” a bit of a moving target. As SHRM explained, “An organization's culture defines the proper way to behave within the organization. This culture consists of shared beliefs and values established by leaders and then communicated and reinforced through various methods, ultimately shaping employee perceptions, behaviors and understanding. Organizational culture sets the context for everything an enterprise does. Because industries and situations vary significantly, there is not a one-size-fits-all culture template that meets the needs of all organizations.”
SHRM went on to state that culture, in general, is “based on values derived from basic assumptions about” human nature, the organization’s relationship to its environment, appropriate emotions, and effectiveness. Culture essentially encompasses a set of shared values on which organizational leaders and stakeholders have agreed to emphasize.
Outcome orientation. Emphasizing achievements and results.
People orientation. Insisting on fairness, tolerance and respect for the individual.
Team orientation. Emphasizing and rewarding collaboration.
Attention to detail. Valuing precision and approaching situations and problems analytically.
Stability. Providing security and following a predictable course.
Innovation. Encouraging experimentation and risk-taking.
Aggressiveness. Stimulating a fiercely competitive spirit.
All of this brings us to the issue at the heart of Amy C. Edmondson’s article in Harvard Business Review, “When Employees Are Open With Each Other, But Not Management.” She opens by talking about the all too common occurrence of employees grumbling about concerns or complaints among one another. We’ve all been there, and we all get it.
”But an organization is in serious trouble when most discussions on crucial issues take place in side conversations, rather than in formal meetings, where concerns can be addressed thoughtfully with people in a position to instigate a change of course,” Edmondson added, illustrating a clear sign of a toxic or untrustworthy culture. She showcased the recent public relations and business disaster that rocked Boeing:
Recent news reports on Boeing reveal what appears to be an epidemic of side conversations about the 737 Max jetliner. In private emails and instant messages, employees expressed rampant concerns about the Max during its development — and outright disdain for some of the decisions being made, technologies being put forward, and even for the company’s customers. The 117 pages of internal communications turned over to the U.S. Congress last week paint a damning portrait of Boeing’s culture — captured in persistent side conversations. Its employees derided airline customers as incompetent and “idiots,” and had similarly harsh words about regulators and Boeing senior executives.
As Captain “Sully” Sullenberger noted in the New York Times, “We’ve all seen this movie before, in places like Enron.”
Side conversations occur because people believe it’s not acceptable to tell the truth publicly. They happen because employees have learned that meetings are places where you go along with the boss or the majority, even if you disagree with what’s being decided or planned. Because we all want to express ourselves and feel heard, we can’t stay silent forever. So we seek out our peers — the ones with whom we believe we can talk straight — and then say what we really think.
These unproductive side conversations take place because workers believe they can’t disclose their opinions to organizational leaders or tell the truth openly. They happen when employees have been conditioned to uphold a counterproductive status quo and blindly support the decisions of management without question. But as Sara Nelson, president of the Flight Attendant’s Union, remarked, all Boeing achieved was the evolution of a “sick culture."
Healing a Sick Culture
”Side conversations about substantive issues,” Edmondson said, “are a source of organizational pathology.” The healing process begins by helping workers recognize the perils of this indirect expression and taking bolder action to report potential pitfalls. However, that requires collaborating with senior executives to construct a culture of safety, one where employees are encouraged to be candid and where they are free from reprisals, retribution, and retaliation.
How MSPs Can Help
Set Clear Expectations. Transparency is crucial. An experienced MSP program management team can help business leaders and staffing suppliers develop strategies to convey a clear sense of the tensions, challenges, and risks inherent in each undertaking. There are always uncertainties and unforeseen complexities. Business leaders want to drive profits while division managers want to ensure productivity, output, performance, and compliance without sacrificing employee wellbeing and safety.
MSPs make sure every stakeholder— including client hiring managers, staffing suppliers, and contingent workers—understand the objectives and buy into the mission ahead.
They provide regular feedback and communication to keep everyone on target.
They assist in creating a safe space or forum where talent and staffing partners can express concerns, offer suggestions for improvement or new ideas, and have a voice in the direction of project goals.
MSPs reward exemplary accomplishments and privately offer constructive criticism and coaching to move the needle forward. As Edmondson wrote, “Kicking the problem down the road costs more in the long run.”
Insist on Input. Subject matter experts may remain silent during meetings when cultures encourage them to toe the line, accept potential pitfalls with alacrity, or simply agree with the opinions of senior management instead of pointing out critical defects in the process. In a contingent workforce program, suppliers and talent may feel even more isolated. But MSPs traditionally capitalize on the best practices exemplified by Edmondson. “Issue explicit invitations for input,” she urged. “Put people on the spot by asking questions to elicit their thoughts. Force yourself to be curious and ready to hear what they are seeing and thinking.”
Don’t Kill the Messenger. Remember that the “bearer of bad news” is seldom the source of it. When people care about the organization, its customers, and its vision, they become passionate about success. Their recommendations, warnings, or misgivings are generally the result of incredible concern for the importance of the mission. The best MSPs don’t discount or reprimand them. Those who remain silent are probably indifferent. Apathy is far more dangerous and destructive than a healthy dose of reality. MSPs are in a unique position to respond productively to bad news and concerns. It takes courage to speak. MSPs recognize this and focus on solutions. They invite ideas and look for volunteers to team up to help solve the problems raised.
A culture that welcomes frank and sometimes challenging conversations is one that takes its work, its workers, and its goals seriously. No significant innovations were achieved in a vacuum or in environments that suppressed creativity, new ideas, or solutions to upcoming obstacles. The more that vital discussions take place around the water cooler than in the conference room, the more perilous an organization’s culture becomes. Open minds and open doors are the keys that open the floodgates to unparalleled achievements. And having the expertise of an MSP who can realize these goals with a client’s contingent workforce and staffing supplier network is essential to success.