The Executive Culture Paradox: When Company Culture Fixes Don’t Work

A senior leadership team at a medical device company received results from an annual company culture survey and the feedback was disappointing. Employee comments highlighted a lack of trust in senior leadership, frustration with heavy workloads and shrinking resources, and a desire for streamlined processes and less complexity. Understandably, senior leaders were concerned, so a plan of action to close gaps was implemented, including town halls, focus groups, new workstreams designed to address survey themes, and feedback loops to assess progress. The problem? It didn’t work. A year later, employees were surveyed again, with few improvements noted.

You might think that measures like improved communications or new workstreams would prove to be effective in addressing culture gaps, but here’s what else we know: Administering a culture survey and putting a series of actions into place to address challenges is the easy part. The much harder part? Taking the right steps that will actually work for your particular organization. When it comes to culture, precision counts, and while there is no silver bullet, consider these elements to make lasting improvements:

The executive culture paradox. Executives are in an interesting spot when it comes to culture survey feedback: They are largely responsible for the current culture while also expected to improve it. At the same time, they are as much a part of the culture as any other employee, and have their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences within it. The problem is that too often this multidimensional role the senior leader plays in the culture conversation gets overlooked or underdiscussed. The result is that executives may find themselves creating plans to close organizational culture gaps that they don’t fully buy into themselves or have blind spots about how they may be unintentionally contributing to the current environment.

Create a safe space for senior leaders to reflect. Before addressing culture, engage in the right level of dialogue with senior leadership that addresses the multidimensionality of their role in culture. Don’t stop there: Provide them with a safe forum to candidly reflect on their own challenges, blind spots, or frustrations with the culture. Provide the opportunity for executives to uniquely recognize how they add to – or detract from – the current culture.

Right solution, wrong problem. The renowned engineer Paul MacCready once said: “The problem is we don’t understand the problem.” He was discussing human-powered flight, but he could have just as easily been discussing the challenges that come with improving culture. Consider the technology company that received low ratings in the areas of leader communication through a recent employee survey. In response, executives tackled the issue across multiple fronts: They established new channels to improve the flow of information, they provided new and different vehicles to make access to information easier, investing considerable company time and resources in the process.

Validate your assumptions. To say executives were frustrated when they were met with the same negative feedback about communications several months later would be an understatement, but it forced them to stop and consider what went wrong: “It’s easy to see now that we assumed we knew what employees were saying in the feedback. What we didn’t do was validate those assumptions deeply enough to get to the truth,” said the CEO.

To get to the truth, get creative. Good companies recognize the limitations that come with employee and culture surveys, because employees may not be candid, according to research. It explains why addressing culture gaps can feel like an exercise of many failed attempts, as one financial services company learned while holding focus groups with senior women in response to survey feedback reporting gender microaggressions. “We asked women to elaborate on their views, so we understood the issues, but in focus groups, they told us, ‘I’m fine, there isn’t a problem,’” shared the CHRO. The company tried other measures to deepen their understanding of the issues, from holding town halls to forming ‘culture committees,’ but it wasn’t until the CEO met individually with key women employees that details behind the initial culture survey feedback emerged.

Cultural shifts only happen when leaders accept that culture can be changed, and that changing it is their responsibility. That commitment is essential, but it won’t be enough without an accurate understanding of what’s behind those gaps in the first place. That takes time and effort, but it’s no comparison to the billions of dollars lost due to toxic cultures, or the low ROI companies get back on culture investments that miss the mark.

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,” Albert Einstein once said. It’s a good reminder for organizations who want to move beyond persistent culture challenges and resolve them, once and for all.

This article first appeared in Forbes.