Are you sure you have got the culture that you want? How can you tell if you are getting full engagement, reluctant compliance or mere lip service from your staff? Do you know what is really being said around the water cooler?

Even the best of us overestimate the openness of the cultures we create, underestimate the challenges for employees to be forthright within them, or underrate how quickly cultural shift occurs.

Simple things can forge a gap between the culture we think we have (or would like to have), and the one that really exists. Most often, this occurs from genuine misunderstandings rather than disingenuous behaviour, but both have an impact. Whether it is a tense manager unintentionally drifting away from the company’s core values, an executive with a personal agenda or simply mixed messages in communications. All can misdirect your culture and increase the gap between what the workforce can deliver, and what it does deliver.

It is not the superficial behaviours that dictate whether your workforce fully engages with your objectives – it is their deeper values, which often remain hidden.

Here are three insights you must uncover:


    Is it the customer, the company, the individual, the shareholder, everyone or another group? For example, at a large healthcare organisation, most staff operated with the customer (or patient) as the most important. But one long serving employee genuinely felt that she was the most important because of the professional advice she gave patients. This seemingly innocuous difference in values had a huge (but hidden) negative impact on customer satisfaction because her patients felt their dignity was not being respected. After a short feedback and training session, the employee was then able to align her values with the company’s towards patient needs, and began dispensing her professional advice with more empathy and customer focus.

  2. What Do Your Staff  FEEL?

    Staff (or customer) reactions include their fears, hopes, emotions, ideals, rights and duties. These feelings dictate their level of engagement with all of the company’s strategic objectives, but they remain hidden for lack of an appropriate channel to capture these insights. The healthcare organisation, mentioned in the first point, spotted low dignity levels among a group of patients and were able to trace this pattern back to the one employee. For example, staff might fear that a new proposal might adversely impact the group they have identified as most important, or feel they have a duty to act in a certain way, or that a particular right should prevail. All of these raise questions that need to be answered, or suggestions they would like to voice but will often shy away from sharing their feelings. If nothing is done about it, it is at this point that engagement may become reluctant compliance.

  3. How Do Your Staff THINK?

    For most companies, this is the starting point and they discuss objectives or issues rationally and openly, but resolution is often difficult because people take sides, thoughts become entrenched and a ‘silo mentality’ kicks in. This is because their values and feelings have not been taken into account, and yet these are the very things that create understanding and unity. If nothing is done about them, it is at this point that reluctant compliance may become lip service. In the healthcare organisation, had they tried only to discuss their patient complaints issue rationally, they may have missed the key determinant creating the problem. Having access to powerful insights (and analytics) into staff values and feelings enabled them to build consensus, align employee values with their organisational objectives and enhance creative teamwork to deliver better solutions to their customers.

You do not need to buy the software the healthcare organisation used in order to access your staff’s thinking. But you do need to find innovative ways to scratch beneath the surface and get to the deeper thinking and values that drive their behaviour. There are innumerable ways to go about this, and the best choice is the one that works for you and is as close as possible to your own natural style of communication. The more you adapt your natural, inclusive style, the harder it may be for you to emanate the authenticity required to create the trust to allow values to unfold. The critical point is that your leadership and engagement be authentic, because your staff will see through you if you try and be manipulative. This is true no matter how clever you think you are being. In other words, it is better to be honest and make a mistake, than duplicitous and try and cover it up. You are, after all, trying to get to the truth of the matter, so your own truthfulness and acceptance is a requirement.

That said, here are two suggestions.

Socratic questioning is a powerful method to challenge the underlying assumptions that drive your staff’s thinking and behaviour. It was developed (unsurprisingly) by the Greek philosopher Socrates, and holds statements up to the scrutiny of logical reasoning. It is aimed at getting to the truth of things by uncovering assumptions, issues and problems, and putting them to the test. It helps your employees distinguish between what they know to be true, and what they have assumed. Probing questions such as “Why did you say that … can you explain further … is this always true … is there any evidence for this … is there another way of looking at this …” can all help direct effective thinking and discussion. The tone of the question must always be neutral, without any suggestion of bias or judgement.

How your employees feel about certain things is more easily identified. All you need to do is ask them, but so few organisations actually do. You may need to cultivate an environment of trust to allow open discussion and you will need to encourage dissent to encourage your staff to speak up. Many may be afraid of repercussions, but if you are after the truth then it makes sense to listen to it. Margaret Heffernan has a great TED Talk entitled “Dare to Disagree” and suggests that companies that allow disagreement are companies that foster smarter thinking.

Fred Kofman’s book Conscious Business outlines powerful communication techniques to engage employees, colleagues and peers in authentic, constructive dialogue that keeps the conversations on track and away from destructive misunderstandings. His premise is that behind every conflict, there is a large space of collaboration because people would not be talking to each other if they did not have common interests.

Whichever path you choose in order to understand what your staff really think, the constants that you will find are truth, transparency, fairness and objectivity. All four of these things need to be deployed with a good dose of humility and good intention. With these ingredients, you cannot go wrong and you might just find out what your company needs to elevate it to the next level of performance, productivity, and organisational health.

Omer Soker
Omer Soker is a corporate speaker, trainer, consultant and a recognised thought leader on organisational trust, employee engagement, conscious business and ethics. He is the author of The Trust Future which has been described by CEOs as “a breath of fresh air in current business literature” and “a compellingly, powerful, thought-provoking book”.