The culture gap that’s killing engagement in your company right now

Shel Holtz's picture

The 3 Silos That Organizations Must Tear Down

One of the most oft-cited cliches in the corporate world has to do with “breaking down silos.” I have never been shy about sharing my belief that silos serve a purpose: Tear them down and all the grain spills out. They just need better ventilation.

There are silos, however, that do need to be torn down, silos that are causing untold harm to organizations and their cultures. They can drive employee engagement levels lower and erode the customer experience. There are three such silos that, because of their insular natures, have resulted in a dramatic, dysfunctional disconnect. They are:

  • Management
  • Rank and file employees

  • Human Resources
  • The disconnect surfaced in a survey completed by HR professionals, people managers, a full-time non-managing employees. The results revealed that each group thinks it is the source of the company’s culture. What’s worse, there is virtually no agreement between the three groups about the top drivers of culture:

    Culture Gaps

    The consequences of this disconnect are potentially massive. For example, acting on the belief that employees value the company’s focus on customers leaves front-line staff wondering why so little attention is paid to work-life balance. HR thinks they’re doing a great job with superior employee benefits and can’t figure out why engagement surveys scores are so low, while employees roll their eyes at pay disparities. We have long known that employee commitment begins with the belief that they’re being treated fairly—in compensation and opportunities to advance, for example. It’s nearly impossible to build a culture when employees believe they’re not being treated fairly.

    When the core beliefs of Human Resources and leadership don’t acknowledge the importance of those things employees hold dear, disaster awaits. Consider the results of a recent study that found close to 30% of U.S. employees (and 20% globally) would be happy to sell their work passwords. Nearly 45% of employees who said they would let a stranger buy access to their company’s networks would accept less than $1,000 for their password. Engaged employees would never consider such a bargain.

    Just how solid are the walls of these three silos? Another study—reported by both the Harvard Business Review and FastCompany—found nearly 70% of people manage staff are uncomfortable communicating with the employees who report to them. Nearly 40% were uncomfortable giving staff direct feedback if they worried the employee might not react well. Another 20% even have difficulties giving positive feedback; the same number can’t admit to their reports when they’ve made a mistake. Nearly 20% admit they can’t give clear directions, while 16% find it hard to give staff members credit for their ideas.

    Managers aren't communicatorsIn other words, managers are building the walls that prevent information to flow freely, especially the kind of information employees deeply value. Another recent survey found, for example, that 90% of employees want to understand what’s happening in their organizations, even if the news is bad. More than half “resort to doing their own detective work” to figure out what’s happening when the company isn’t forthcoming with the information. All while nearly three-quarters of managers aren’t comfortable communicating with their employees.

    The barriers are even more impenetrable at the executive levels, while Human Resources departments can be notoriously isolated despite their overarching mandate to maximize employee performance.

    The result of these silos is evident in engagement numbers shared by Gallup, the research firm that is largely responsible for defining the idea of employee engagement. In 2012, Gallup reported a paltry 29% of employees were engaged (meaning they will give discretionary effort beyond their job responsibilities and will recommend the company as an employer as well as its products or services to others). That means the rest are either not engaged or actively disengaged. Despite organizations investing billions of dollars in programs designed specifically to boost engagement since then, needle barely moved as of mid-2015 with the percentage of engaged employees rising only 2.5%.

    There are more fundamental forces at work than can be addressed by programs created by HR. Since so much engagement literature fixates on the employee-manager relationship, a lot of those programs train managers to do their jobs better. With so many managers afraid to even talk to their employees, those programs are apparently failing badly. This is no surprise since companies promote people into jobs with people responsibilities as a reward for hands-on work, not because they’re management material. A training course can’t suddenly make them great communicators. Even in companies that hold managers accountable for communication, the percentage of their overall evaluations assigned to communication is usually inconsequential enough to ease the pain of missing the mark.

    One key reason the disconnect persists (and companies suffer as a result) is that people in each of those three silos are working toward different goals. That’s unavoidable to some degree, but managers and Human Resources need to be aligned on one shared goal: creating a great recruitment-to-retirement employee experience. If that goal is pursued by leaders and HR staff who know they will be held accountable for the results, the gaps between the groups can be narrowed, a positive culture can thrive, and engagement levels will improve. It is under these circumstances that employees are inclined to turn their attention to the customer. (At McDonald’s, for instance, increasing the minimum wage produced measurably better customer service ratings. The perception of being paid fairly bolstered employees’ engagement.)

    A McKinsey & Company report validates this idea, explaining that its research found that “creating great customer experiences requires having an engaged and energized workforce, one that can translate individual experiences into satisfying end-to-end customer journeys and can continue to improve the journeys to maintain a competitive edge.”

    It sounds great. It’ll never happen if the manager-HR-staff barriers aren’t toppled.

    Silo image courtesy of Kristian Bjornard



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