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Fixing the Cultural Divide Between What’s Said and What’s Done

Despite stating lofty values, many organizations suffer from a disconnect between their professed culture and the actual employee experience—a misalignment that often goes unnoticed by leadership. To fix the divide between what’s said and what’s done, leaders must continuously prioritize their stated values, truly hold themselves and others accountable, and frankly address cultural problems.

Why is it that leadership often fails to recognize when they have a culture problem? A case in point is Boeing, where years of a lack of safety oversight in the construction of Boeing airplanes led to multiple public relations crises, as was detailed here and in a recent report that stated that a majority of Boeing employees lacked a clear understanding of, and confidence in, the company’s commitment to safety. As quoted in the report: “The panel observed ‘inadequate and confusing implementation’ of components of a ‘positive safety culture’ and found ‘gaps in Boeing’s safety journey.’” The report also documented that “Boeing’s SMS [safety management systems] documents do not effectively result in understanding by the average employee of their role in Boeing’s SMS.” Moreover, in interviews, employees expressed “distrust in the anonymity of the Speak Up program” that was intended to be a cornerstone of the company’s stated commitment to safety. That distrust raised questions about “the effectiveness of this reporting program,” the panel said.

“Boeing’s SMS (safety management systems) documents do not effectively result in understanding by the average employee of their role in Boeing’s SMS.”

This disconnect between an organization’s espoused values and its actual culture is more common than one might expect. In our experience leading countless workshops and conducting executive interviews over the years to help companies define and clearly articulate their values, many of these organizations subsequently failed to adhere to those values. This resulted in a refreshed brand with a new external façade, but the same internal disconnect from its professed culture.

Frequently, leaders fail to recognize culture problems because they are too close to the issue, or because the company’s culture has become so ingrained that deviations from stated values are accepted as the norm.

By keeping a close eye on the pulse of their culture, companies can avoid situations that negatively impact both fiscal performance and operational effectiveness. If Boeing’s leadership had remained vigilant about the organization’s culture rather than prioritizing profits above all else, it might have minimized the public relations crises that have plagued the company over the past several years.

To bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality, companies, from the top down, need to hold themselves accountable for adhering to their brand values. They must constantly demonstrate their commitment to upholding these values. The abovementioned article suggests asking a simple three-question survey that can identify whether an organization is headed for a damaging crisis:

1. Do you understand our values? : This can help communicators understand whether their employees have received adequate information about the company’s stated values.

2. Do you believe the company management lives up to these values?: This can help communicators understand whether the company’s actions reflect these stated values, or whether they are regarded as mere window-dressing.

3. Do you personally feel empowered to make decisions based on these values?: This last question can help communicators understand whether employees believe they would be rewarded or punished for acting on company values—and also for pointing out that others are not living up to those values.

The answers to these questions will quickly shed light on the assumptions and the reality of your company’s culture.

Ultimately, culture change requires more than a logo rebranding or a new website with an intriguing positioning statement; it requires sustained effort and commitment from the top, as well as a willingness to confront harsh truths and make difficult choices in service of the company’s long-term health and viability.

Questions? Please email me here. As always, thank you for reading.

Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash