Workplace Culture

The Only Question You Need to Figure Out Who Owns Your Culture

By Kris Dunn

Jul. 16, 2010

In management, we often make things harder than they need to be. Things like culture, engagement and the Gallup 12 are good examples.

We’ve heard so much about employee engagement that the mere term has become a bit of a buzzword to many in the talent game. The mention of engagement alone can cause a cynical, jaded reaction among HR leaders (when no one is watching and the cameras are off, mind you).

After all, how do you measure engagement? How do you find time to chase engagement initiatives in addition to everything else you have on your plate? What’s the ROI of engagement work?

It’s easy to talk about engagement, but it’s harder to measure. It’s even harder to do well and feel like you have your arms around the concept as an HR leader.

There’s a simpler way.

No doubt you want to build the best culture possible at your company, which requires employee engagement (or whatever you choose to call it). Regardless of how you define your culture, you can find out what your employees really think and what they value culturally by asking the following simple question: If you could pick any manager (other than the one you currently report to) in the company to work for (regardless of functional area), who would it be and why?

It’s a no-BS question you should add to your next employee survey that cuts straight to the heart of what people want out of your company. Culture isn’t defined by a cool workspace, by free lunches and soda, or by the stuff you put in the onboarding packet. Those things help to attract talent and are nice to have, but they quickly become entitlements.

You are not the car you drive or the perks you pump up your recruiting collateral with. Your company is, however, only as good as your managers allow you to be.

You lose control of your culture once your managers take delivery of talent in the new-hire process. At that point, an employee’s experience with your culture is heavily influenced by their day-to-day interactions with their manager.

My bet is if you ask the “Who else would you like to work for?” question and review the results in a group of manageable size, you’ll find some common names popping up all over the place.

Employees talk. They know who’s good with people, who’s fair and who has a nice balance between business results and development of team members.

The equation is pretty simple: Fairness plus people skills plus balance between business results and employee development equals the culture your employees truly value.

When I talk to my peers about the impact of frontline manager effectiveness and the potential of this question from an engagement and cultural perspective, objections consistently differ between large and small companies. The big companies claim that the “Who else would you like to work for?” question isn’t scalable to their enterprise level needs. The small companies claim that they already know the answer.

Both responses are wrong.

For big companies, there’s no question that employee reactions to the question can’t be effectively reviewed in raw form. However, it’s easy to imagine a progressive HR team taking a page from the marketing playbook and developing a form of “buyer personas” from the trends identified.

Buyer personas help marketers understand buyer needs and thus market more effectively to them. Why wouldn’t a big company ask the “Who else would you like to work for?” question, then develop a form of “manager personas” detailing the trended traits and skills of the managers the polled employees identified?

Imagine a world where you developed those personas, evaluated your existing managers to see which profile each had the best chance of emulating, and then developed a customized development plan to help those managers match up with that persona? It could be scary good.

Small companies are simpler in their objections to using the “Who else would you like to work for?” question, claiming they already know the answer. Of course, that’s not true.

Those in charge at small companies know who they would like to work for, not who their employees would like to work for. Don’t believe me? If you’re in a company with more than 20 managers, ask the question and I’ll guarantee you that you’ll be surprised by at least one trend in the results.

Ask the question, and then look at the names of the managers that come up repeatedly. Look at their style and philosophy, then figure out how to push, prod and train your other managers to embody some of the traits identified.

The question doesn’t lie, and it’s brutally honest because how it’s written (anyone other than who you report to) releases the employee responding from saying, “I’d take my manager,” because we all know that’s the politically correct answer.

Ask the question. Learn who is really driving your culture.

I bet you’ll be surprised.

Workforce Management Online, July 2010Register Now!

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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