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  • David S Cohen

What is a Winning Culture?


A recent Toronto publication highlighted the 50 best places to work in Toronto. For each of the companies they identified the reason for their selection.

I found it curious that the criteria for being identified as company to work for was based solely on their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities. The assumption being that if the company provides or advocates CSR it is a de facto good place to work. Yet, having worked with a number of the organizations as an external consultant, I knew some of the listed companies had employees who were neither engaged or satisfied and were in fact put off by the company culture (values).

The drive to highlight CSR is based on the widespread belief that millennials prefer to work at a company that lives CSR. It also seems to indicate that if you are giving back to the community or society you are a good company. But does that mean your company will tend to have satisfied, engaged and / or happy employees? My answer is no. Let me tell you why.

Is Satisfaction and Engagement Synonymous?

Before the current movement to measure employee engagement there were employee satisfaction surveys. The employee satisfaction survey focused on employee happiness with pay and the level of support and contribution. In essence, it was about whether employees had a positive environment in which to work. This could be reflected in low turnover (strong retention) and a positive bottom line; however, in reality, this was not always the case.

Some argue that engagement surveys do the same thing. Those who sell the importance of engagement say the higher engagement levels result in more innovation, better performance, and improved competitive advantage. This is because it is supposed to capture the extent to which the employee willingly gives discretionary effort to drive business goals, and deliver a return on human capital. After all, if you feel your contribution is meaningful and that your company is doing important work, you try harder.

Much has been made of such engagement research company reports. Check out examples of research focusing on engagement that emphasize the drive for higher engagement scores:

Lost productivity of actively disengaged employees costs the U.S. economy $370 billion annually. (2010 Gallup Employee Engagement Survey)

Performance against revenue expectations is 23% greater for companies with high engagement capital compared to those with low engagement capital. (2011 Corporate Leadership Council HR Engagement Research Survey)

The employee satisfaction survey focuses on contentment with the organization, work environment, and overall compensation. The satisfaction results focus on employee happiness in terms of how people interact with one another and the purpose of their work. The net results of both provide human resources with data to put in place programs to improve engagement and satisfaction.

When I talk about the power of discretionary effort to groups, I ask if anyone in the audience participates in a religious, volunteer, or not-for-profit organization. Typically, many people do. So I point out that as volunteers they are willing to give their time and energy to support a cause about which they are truly passionate, for which they receive no pay and even give willingly of their own discretionary income. I then ask whether that same passion is reflected in how they answered the engagement questions for their company. Most often it is not.

Can an organization have a satisfied employee who is not engaged or vice versa? In other words, can I be happy, satisfied and even engaged with my work but not give discretionary effort? I would argue that many of the engagement questions do not measure discretionary effort. Therefore high engagement scores or a CSR program, or employee development activities or ATMs at work do not mean that a company is a good place to work.

So, being voted as a ‘best place to work’ cannot be derived from having high employee engagement or satisfaction scores or having CSR activities. In my view, only the employee can define what is a great place to work.

Is A Great Work Culture the Same Culture (Workplace) for Everyone?

If you are measuring the power of your corporate culture by reviewing your satisfaction or engagement survey results you are not getting the entire picture. In fact, in my view, your data source is not even correct. A high engagement score can be driven by a number of issues, most importantly the wording of the questions. Most questions are focused on whether the individual is happy with what management is doing for them to make their job easier. Often the questions do not ask is if the employee is giving discretionary effort or are the values of the company meaningfully aligned with the values of the individual. The questions might ask about the articulated values of the company but not whether the values articulated are actually the values demonstrated by the leaders.

Having a sleep area, free lunches, ATM machines, foosball tables and a basketball court does not make a strong culture. What is culture? Culture is simply the norms of behaviour that have, over time, defined how to behave successfully in the organization. If you trace those behaviours to their origin you will find them embedded in the belief system of the founders and passed on from generation of employee to the next generation of employees.

Measuring the discretionary effort or the satisfaction of employees does not lead to retention of employees, improvements in innovation or increased contribution beyond one’s own job. Employees want a company aligned to their own belief system. They want a company that doesn’t cut employees or development opportunities with the first signs of economic stress. They want a boss that is a champion for the development of their talents.

How Does a Company Make the List?

So what leads to companies that don’t deserve the accolade being assigned to the ‘best place to work’ list? Typically, they are firms that focus on giving employees things like CSR opportunities, time for sleep, daycare, eldercare, etc. They provide employees a way of having certain needs ‘satisfied’ but not actually a great culture.

The right culture for an employee is an individual thing. Each company has a culture unique to its founders and history. Each employee has a personal value set unique to his or her background, parents, grandparents, and life experiences. To say that one culture is better than another would be wrong. Each culture is right according to its own unique circumstances. Posting that a company is a great place to work will set expectations for potential employees. Once they join they might find for the new hire, it is not such a great place to work.

Having a winning culture means having employees with a common belief system focused on a common set of behaviours that enable them to work together in a meaningful way to accomplish a business strategy. It means having a vision that is meaningful to the individuals who collectively make up the organization.

Employees can have a ‘good job’ and be supported and developed but are they working in a culture that they believe in and in which they wish to continue to work? Companies with a winning culture that are truly great places to work will all be different. They have characteristics unique to the belief system that defines the values of the company. They cannot be compared or benchmarked. They can only be explained as a great place to work by describing the behaviours that are at the root of the way they live their values. In turn only the person, not an outside organization, can determine whether those companies are a great place to work.

Companies that are ‘great places to work’ cannot be categorized because they offer CSR opportunities, or educational reimbursements, or daycare, free food, onsite medical care or foosball tables. A great work culture will be different from organization to organization and from person to person. I would like to see a list of places to work based on the cultures that truly define their behaviours and live by them. By saying the percentage of employees who are aligned to the behaviours are at 80% or greater. But those questions are not asked on the best places to work or employee satisfactory or engagement surveys. Maybe it’s time they were.

#StrategicHR #Culture #EmployeeEngagement #Values