It was time for the annual employee engagement survey and Roger was eager to see his team’s results. He had a good rapport with his direct reports and had worked hard to foster a good vibe. He was sure his team’s positive scores would show his higher-ups he was a good leader. 

So, imagine Roger’s surprise when the scores were in the toilette. Not only was he disappointed that his team members felt so disconnected, but he was confused how his perception was so far off. How could he and his reports see things so differently? What was wrong? 

Unfortunately, Roger’s story is typical. Our research found an alarming gap between what managers say they want their company culture to be and what employees say is really valued by their bosses. 

According to the study, leaders describe their culture as one of innovation, initiative, candor and teamwork. But what employees feel is really valued is obedience, predictability, deference to authority and competition with peers. When it comes to culture, management is out of touch with the day-to-day experiences of their employees. 

After surveying 1,200 employees, managers and executives, we found that employees have a much more negative view of their corporate culture than their bosses. And the higher up an employee is on the organization chart, the more positive his or her perception is of the company culture. 

Why does this matter? The truth is, a culture chasm has a huge impact on performance. Disheartened employees were 32 percent less likely to be engaged, motivated, and committed and 26 percent less likely to rate their organization as successful at innovating and executing. 

So what can leaders do repair culture rifts? The best place to start is with dialogue. In fact, the only way to close this perception gap is with open, honest conversation between employees and their leaders. 

Employees believe their leaders push one set of behaviors on them but reward another. This is the ideal starting point for dialogue. If leaders are perceived to send mixed messages about what they truly believe will drive performance, they should invite employees to call them out on the hypocrisy. While many leaders believe employees will not be candid, we’ve found the opposite to be true. When an executive really listens and demonstrates genuine concern, employees will be surprisingly honest. 

Below are four strategies leaders can use to start a candid discussion about their culture chasm:  

  • Understand the business case. Before leaders set off to change the company culture, they must be clear about the business reason for doing so. The worst thing they can do is implement a feel-good strategy. This has little impact and creates cynicism among employees. There are hard, measurable reasons for changing the culture and leaders must articulate them first.
  • Focus on vital behaviors. Leaders can’t change 10 to 15 behaviors – they can really only focus on a vital two or three. Pick the behaviors that will have the biggest impact on performance and stick with them.
  • Google recently completed a comprehensive study to find the link between culture and team performance . The study revealed the key vital behaviors of perfect teams—teams that combine superior innovation with best-in-class execution.
  • 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. And this participation came as a result of feeling welcome, valued, and secure within the team.
  • Listen deeply. Before leaders can change the culture, they must know where they stand with their employees. The best way to do this isn’t through a survey administered by outsiders. Rather, they should vulnerably engage with employees who know best. Pair up and meet with groups of 8 to 10 employees. Spend an hour asking open-ended questions like, “What advice would you give a friend if they came to work here.”
  • Take action. Listening creates expectations. Once employees take a risk to share their perceptions, they start to watch and see if leaders were really listening. They want to see evidence. Leaders should pick a couple of valued and visible concerns and address them quickly. This builds trust in leaders’ sincerity to make longer-term changes that may involve the employees themselves changing their behavior. 

To learn more, be sure to attend Joseph's session at ATD 2017