Opinion: Do cultural say-do gaps amount to a ‘war on talent’?

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OF the terms commonly used in the world of business, one of the words with the most definitions is “culture”, writes Mike Klein

According to Donald Sull, Stefano Turconi, and Charles Sull (2020) people see corporate culture differently. Academic literature has more than 50 definitions, including employee anecdotes, organisational rituals, and corporate symbols.  –  Human Capital Hub

For the most part, these definitions use language that’s normative and positive, but in my experience working with major organisations in the US, UK, continental Europe, and the Nordics, there is one defining factor that’s more real and more challenging:

The gap between what the organisation says it is and does and what it actually is and does – and the amount of pressure it places on employees to maintain this gap.

Part of the reason for such gaps is inherent in the nature of branding itself, where the game is about getting customers to perceive a degree of value for products and services that produce more revenue than the products and services cost. 

Some of that surplus may be the result of genuine value and virtues – perhaps in the form of authentic commitment to environmental change, social equity, or bold thinking and innovation within the context of one’s specific industry. 

But it’s also possible, and often tempting, to broadcast one’s virtues as current and valuable even where they are more aspirational. 

Such gaps are particularly relevant at a time when the ‘war for talent’ is essentially causing a simultaneous ‘war on talent’.

That’s when the effort to attract new (and often younger, less expensive) talent to organisations through flashy employer branding exaggerates the current attractiveness of a workplace while pressurising current employees to act as if the aspiration is the reality when, in fact, it is not.

Similarly, the practice of “greenwashing”, where an organisation overstates its commitment to environmental practices and causes and expects its other stakeholders, including employees, to play along.

Such gaps are not necessarily always the product of crass cynicism.

In organisational change, it’s often necessary to define a desired positioning and put the organisation actively on the path towards achieving it, or even to declare the new positioning an immediate reality, even if achieving it fully may take some time. In other words, the strategic aim may exist prior to the fulfilled reality.

At the same time, the extent to which organisations are less-than-willing to acknowledge, measure, and address gaps wreaks havoc on internal culture, internal communication, and, undoubtedly, impacts employee performance and mental health.

In my experience, it’s quite easy to measure such gaps. In what I call the “two question survey” (a major focus of my consulting practice), all one needs to do is to ask employees what the top three priorities of the business are, and then ask them the three most important things they are working on. 

Compared to employee engagement surveys, which tend to ask about such things indirectly and focus on how employees feel about the alignment between organisational words and actions, the two-question approach is much more direct, while yielding richer insights. 

For example, findings could include the percentage of respondents who correctly name the organisation’s top priorities, a list of the additional “unofficial” top priorities that employees see being practiced, and, in larger samples, the parts of the organisation where the new reality is clearly less evident than the old.

But such an approach can be challenging to sell because it can easily expose the gaps between words and deeds.

Internal communication can be extremely challenging in an environment dedicated to maintaining a gap between aspirational positioning and organisational reality. That’s because such a dedication makes it difficult for the internal communications not only to address performance issues related to the maintenance of the gap, but because the gap has to be denied or talked around rather than confronted directly.

This has two main impacts.

First, the “real” internal communication pertaining to the gap becomes unofficial and verbal with colleagues, and perhaps even managers, putting real issues into context off the record, and employees becoming increasingly dependent on peer influencers for actual information. Indeed, peer credibility becomes driven by an influencer’s willingness to stray from the official script. 

Second, the unwillingness to measure the impact of such gaps makes it difficult for organisations to use internal communication to support and enable performance improvements, both because internal communication can’t address the performance issues created by these gaps, and because internal communication’s own credibility is undermined by the extent to which it attempts to position the aspirational reality as the current reality.

What is the impact on culture? 
The impact on culture is that employees end up having to live in a dual reality, while being pressured to act as if the aspirational is real. Thus the ‘war for talent’ and other attempts to present organisations as more enlightened and exciting than they are, ends up as a ‘war on talent’ in real time. This also opens the space for a scenario where the employees learn about the organisational priorities from external sources. This can define the death of any trust for the C-suite.

Mike Klein, MBA SCMP is a communication strategist and consultant who works with international clients on internal and political initiatives. Based in Reykjavik, Mike is a graduate of London Business School, author of “From Lincoln to LinkedIn, the 55 Minute Guide to Social Communication,” and is the founder of the global #WeLeadComms initiative to recognise leadership across the communication disciplines.