by Sharon Florentine

Who’s the boss of workplace culture?

Apr 06, 2016

Everyone can agree that culture is important in the workplace. But who really drives it? What makes a good culture? And what can destroy it?

Who really drives culture in your workplace? According to a study from The Workforce Institute at Kronos and the research and consultancy firm, HR believes it does. So do managers and executives. So, too, do your employees.

There’s clearly a disagreement about who’s in charge of creating, maintaining and supporting workplace culture, but there’s one thing every group agrees on: Workplace culture is incredibly important. The disconnect, though, isn’t just comical. Without understanding the who, what and why of workplace culture and how it affects engagement, retention and loyalty, organizations risk destroying it and losing out on top talent.

The study, Who’s the Boss of Workplace Culture?, polled more than 1,800 working U.S. adults whose responses were segmented into three different survey groups — HR professionals (601 respondents); people managers (604 respondents); and full-time, non-managing employees (602 respondents) — and their answers were compared based on how each group responded to questions about various aspects of workplace culture and employee engagement.

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Us, not them

When asked who at their organization most defines the workplace culture, HR professionals, managers, and employees each say they were most important: About one-third of HR professionals said that the head of HR defines the culture, while only 10 percent of managers and three percent of employees agree. Twenty-six percent of managers say their executive team defines the culture, while only 11 percent of HR professionals and 9 percent of employees feel the same.

Twenty-nine percent of employees overall — though that figure increases to 40 percent of millennials — say they define workplace culture, with only 9 percent of HR professionals and 13 percent of managers agreeing, according to the study.

“You’re going to have a culture whether you like it or not, so you need to define what it is you want and what that represents. At its core, a culture is a climate and a set of beliefs that will either contribute to your success or hamper it. What’s most troubling to me is how differently employees, their managers and HR professionals view culture. You really need to have common ground concerning who defines the culture, what is important to creating a winning culture and what can ruin it,” says Joyce Maroney, director, The Workforce Institute at Kronos.

Though 28 percent of employees say no one at their organization defines the workplace culture, only 5 percent of HR professionals and 7 percent of managers feel this way. But the statistic is still troubling; without a clear understanding of who’s really driving culture, it’s hard to understand how to build and support it, Maroney says. In those cases, it’s entirely possible for a negative, toxic culture to take root and wreak some havoc within the organization if it’s not addressed.

[ Related story: How one CTO built a culture of trust and engagement ]

Three strikes, you’re out

There’s another major disconnect surrounding what attributes of culture are most important to employees made apparent by the survey, Maroney points out. When asked what they felt were employees top three most-important attributes, HR and management respondents struck out completely.

While 50 percent of employees listed “pay,” 42 percent listed “coworkers who respect and support each other” and 40 percent say “work-life balance,” HR and management respondents had very different opinions about what matters to their employees: HR professionals say “managers and executives leading by example,” employee benefits and a “shared mission and values” were the top three things that mattered most to employees; while managers guessed “managers and executives leading by example,” a “shared mission and values,” and an “emphasis on taking care of our customers” would top employees’ lists. Only 25 percent of HR professionals and 29 percent of managers thought pay would be a top concern for how employees view workplace culture.

“This is more than just an ‘Oops, we guessed wrong.’ If you want to drive better alignment around culture, you really need to be asking your employees what’s most important, where you’re meeting those needs, where you’re not, and how to do better if you want to retain your talent. You have to understand what the key drivers and motivations are for your workforce,” says Maroney.

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Strength training

When asked what they do to preserve and strengthen workplace culture, however, HR professionals and managers were on the same page, with 72 percent and 61 percent, respectively, listing “training and development,” and 45 percent and 46 percent, respectively, saying “getting feedback from employees and acting on it”, according to the survey results.

This aspect of an organization’s culture is incredibly important; create and deliver employee surveys, pull together focus groups, whatever you need to do to gather information about your workforce, Maroney says. You also need to make sure that everyone’s on the same page when it comes to culture, all the way from the entry-level to senior leadership and be prepared to act if your information gathering uncovers some ugly truths.

“This isn’t necessarily simple, but it’s so important. If you’re hearing people tell you, ‘My manager isn’t that great,’ you have to act. If someone says, ‘My work-life balance is non-existent,’, you have to be willing to dig deep and figure out if that’s a company-wide issue or if it’s an individual problem,” Maroney says.

If you’re not actively encouraging your employees to speak out about what’s both good and bad in your organization and its culture, there are other outlets like Glassdoor, and they will use them, Maroney says. The “Glassdoor” effect can either help you or hurt you, so try and make sure you’re the “first responder” when it comes to issues in the workplace.

“It’s really, really important to focus on culture issues and on listening to what your employees want and need and delivering that. Part of that is actively encouraging them to provide feedback to you and on public sites, without ‘cherry-picking’ people who will only post positive things,” Maroney says.

Culture killers

When it comes to what has the greatest negative impact on culture, the survey revealed another major divide, with HR pros and managers saying that “a high-stress environment” and “company growth” had the biggest negative impact on workplace culture. But employees felt that “not having enough staff to support goals,” being surrounded by “unhappy/disengaged workers who poison the well” and “poor employee/manager relationships” were the major obstacles. Again, it’s important to identify exactly what’s causing your employees to struggle, and what is negatively impacting culture before you can fix it, Maroney points out.

“If you are focused on solving what you perceive as a problem, but your employees are struggling for other reasons, then how are you actually going to address the problem? Especially in the IT industry, in the midst of such a tough talent market, it’s so key to truly understand what it is your employees want and need, culture-wise,” Maroney says.

Listen to your employees and then act

What it really comes down to, says Dan Schawbel, founder of WorkplaceTrends, is identifying exactly what your workforce wants and needs and then doing your best to implement those. “HR professionals and people managers should take note of this, look for ways to involve employees in the development of workplace culture, and be on the lookout for those disengaged workers who may be poisoning the well – they wield more power than you may think,” he says.