Why Some Employees May Not Be Buying Into Your Culture
With the Great Resignation upon us, I’m hearing from more leaders who want to create the kind of workplaces that will attract and retain great people.
That’s all about culture; and great cultures are created when a majority of people buy-in and believe in your mission, vision and values.
As a background, culture building is hard work. After all, every person who works for you has arrived in your employ with a unique set of theories about the world, most often shaded by experiences that have hardened their resolve or even created built-in resistance to new ways of thinking—i.e., your desired culture.
Belief is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, it can be a force for inconceivable, blow-the-doors-off achievement. Negative beliefs, however, can be enormous impediments to the success of any culture. Yet many managers have the idea that because they give their employees a paycheck, those people should believe in their vision. But a paycheck will not guarantee commitment in a way that garners high performance.
It’s not that people don’t want to believe. Believing in something important at work is a heck of a lot more engaging than just punching a clock. In a recent conversation with a young worker, he told me: “I want a noble cause, not just a paycheck.”
Yet our resistance to believing in new ways of thinking is ingrained.
Over thousands of years our species has developed a natural inclination to hold tight to preconceptions, despite evidence to the contrary. It kept our ancestors safe when hunting/gathering. If they saw something that reminded them of trouble they’d faced before, they were inclined to avoid it, even if what they were seeing was actually benign.
Why do our minds work this way? We have an unconscious impulse to relieve mental tension—what’s called cognitive dissonance—when presented with information that contradicts what we think is right. Plato captured this brilliantly in his allegory of the cave. Plato described a cavern occupied by people who have been chained all their lives, forced to look at one wall. Behind them is a fire so that there are shadows cast on the wall of people and animals. Plato said that if one of the prisoners was released and able to see the real objects that cast those shadows, the person would even be angry at those claiming that these objects were the “real” ones. The shadows would be more real to them.
That was 2,400 years ago, yet Plato identified one of the main problems facing today’s business leaders. When managers present a new vision or ask their employees to do things a certain way, many of their people become irritated or resentful—overtly or covertly. The boss is suggesting the way they’ve done things all these years is wrong. People want to believe that are right. When something new challenges that, they push back. The person in the cave wants to believe in those shadows.
Is there hope with all of the cognitive bias that exists that we can garner the belief of our employees? Unquestionably says Dr. Kevin Fleming, clinical psychologist turned executive coach. He explained to me, “Too often leaders state who they are and if people don’t share their same beliefs, those employees quickly learn to do what I call a cost/benefit ratio dance—they minimize the dissonance they feel by showing up and doing the minimal amount necessary to seem like a team player.”
So how can a leader align beliefs and get people to buy into a culture? Said Fleming, “The key is not to get rid of the squeaky wheels. Instead, leaders should consider why the wheels are squeaking. It’s possible that all the other wheels are actually the problem and the squeaky wheels are simply communicating the problem.”
He summarized, “Don’t crap on the data or the feedback.”
In other words, if we want to build a great culture, we leaders must listen. We have to bring people along through influence and not force. It’s about getting other team members involved in the vision, one-by-one, and helping those people become culture champions.
Culture is a powerful force to get people to buy in, believe and commit. We can’t help but be infected by the place we spend hours 40 or 50 hours a week. When someone drops into a positive culture, they are susceptible to its influence.
A culture like this was something my friend Pat discovered when he accepted a job as an insurance underwriter at a midsized agency on the East Coast not long ago. The atmosphere wasn’t like other companies he’d worked for. The employees were involved in decision-making, managers were empathetic, and everyone enjoyed a healthy dose of levity. Soon Pat felt comfortable and valued, and he felt a kinship with his coworkers and boss. He lunched daily with the gang, he took a couple of breaks a day to grab a soda and a donut with his manager and new buddies, a few times a week he went for beers after work.
Sounds like a great fit, right? Indeed, the culture was already having an impact on Pat. Within three months he was more absorbed in his work than he’d ever been … and he’d gained twenty-one pounds!
I admit that when Pat told me this I couldn’t help but chuckle. After all, this isn’t the impact anyone assumes is a result of culture, but it demonstrates a significant point—it may take a long time for a manager to influence a person by him or herself, but once a collective culture is established it can change team members in a hurry. Cultures can influence perspectives, expectations, belief systems, and even the biology of members.