Leadership The Executive Disconnect

Your boss champions teamwork and constructive personal relations but the reality is that you neither feel heard nor supported.
That seems to be common experience anecdotally – now there’s some pretty robust research confirming the “disconnect” between executives’ preference for constructive culture and their apparent ability to reinforce behaviours that are more designed to avoid blame and keep the boss happy.
An 18-month study carried out by organisational development consultants Human Synergistics International (HSI) both measured the causal factors that drive culture and the impact of culture on individuals, teams and the organisation as whole. It used data collected from 8385 individuals in 51 New Zealand and Australian organisations and compared these with each other and against global averages.
It found that while New Zealand executives are bit better at fostering constructive cultures than their Aussie counterparts, they don’t measure up internationally on several counts.
While they say they want constructive culture, in 80 percent of cases, they create passive/aggressive one, says HSI’s Wellington-based chair Shaun McCarthy.
“Top executives in New Zealand want culture that supports excellence and strategic implementation. However, for many, their actions reinforce behaviours that are more consistent with coping and survival than excellence and achievement.”
So what’s gone wrong? And how to close the gap between the sort of organisation they apparently want and the one they get?
A primary area for improvement turns out to be leadership. Seems New Zealand organisations scored relatively lowly in the critical areas of task and people facilitation, goal emphasis and use of rewards.
The problem, says McCarthy, is that most leaders just aren’t aware of the impact they have on their teams – and that how the team behaves reflects their own behaviour.
That’s something of crunch point when it comes to moving on from merely identifying the preferred/actual culture gaps to taking the actions needed to close them.
“Every time we put our culture survey results in front of the executive group they say, ‘yeah, that’s right’. But when that comes down to the impact of individual management styles, it all becomes bit more personal,” says McCarthy.
The single biggest gap that emerged in the Kiwi dataset was the use of rewards – which makes that the biggest potential lever for organisational change.
It may be no more complex than telling someone they’ve done good job but that’s something we’re not particularly good at. Usually management handles use of rewards by bundling it into six-monthly performance management system. Not particularly effective, says McCarthy.
“Most firms in the world find their performance management systems don’t really work and that’s because, by default, they replace what needs to be happening on an everyday interaction basis.”

Which is your culture?
So just what is constructive culture and how is it measured?
The tools developed and used by Human Synergistics include the Organisational Culture Inventory (OCI) – see graph – and the Organisational Effectiveness Inventory (OEI).
The OCI measures what is expected in the way of cultural norms and behaviours within an organisation. Are people encouraged to interact with others, be open, think ahead or is there lot of patch protecting, pandering to authority, competition and political backstabbing?
There are 12 different norms (ranging from “humanistic-encouraging” to “oppositional” and””competitive”) which are grouped into three main culture types: constructive, passive/defensive, and passive/aggressive.
The first (more espoused as the ideal) is an environment where people get along, are supportive, strive to achieve, grow and learn. However, most organisations tend to fall into the passive/defensive style where people shy away from initiatives, do as they’re told, avoiding responsibility and blame. Or they’re passive aggressive – into power, tad arrogant, competitive, perfectionist (low tolerance for screw-ups and therefore experimentation), and critical.
Diagrammatically, the 12 norms are presented in clock form, which makes it easy to spot where “ideal” culture deviates from “operating” culture.
Okay, so there’s the culture disconnect. Next step is look at what factors drive the culture and the impact of these on its members. Which is where the OEI comes in.
It looks at the causal factors under five categories:
• mission and philosophy – measures of its articulation and customer service focus;
• structures – measures of influence, empowerment and employee involvement;
• systems – measures of HR management, appraisal, reinforcement and goal setting;
• technology – measures of job design and interdependence;
• skills/qualities – measures of how these are exhibited by members, particularly those in leadership positions.
The OEI also assesses the impact of culture of various outcomes on the individuals (eg, motivation, satisfaction), the group (eg, teamwork), and the organisation (eg, customer service quality, external adaptability).
These are readily compared using gap bar chart that shows where each factor sits against the average. Turns out that New Zealand scores better than Australia on 28 of 31 “causal factors” but was ahead of the global average on 15. We also score better than the Aussies on 11 of the 12 factors measuring outcomes.
Before Kiwis get too complacent about this, it’s worth pointing out that the local participating companies tended to be smaller.
“A bit easier to do some of this stuff in smaller companies,” notes McCarthy.
There’s also bit of self-selection involved – after all, these are companies sufficiently aware of need for self-improvement to undertake the completion of two major surveys.
“If anything, these organisations are little less aggressive than average,” says McCarthy.
And while 51 companies could be regarded as small sample, very similar “cultural disconnect” shows up in data collected worldwide from some 120,000 people.
A similar gap between ideal and actual also showed up in an academic study that tried to find link between how intensely organisational values were expressed and how they were reflected in actual behavioural norms – and failed. There was no relationship in any of the 92 organisations they studied.
“Say an organisation has particular set of values – it frames them and puts them on the office walls in the belief this will cause people to behave that way. The flaw in that approach is that where people actually look for their behaviour clues is in what goes on day-to-day,” says McCarthy.
For companies that seriously want to bridge the cultural disconnect, the OEI identifies which are the best levers for change. Not every company follows through – oddly enough Enron was one that failed to act on cultural survey that highlighted some of the ethical issues that later proved its undoing.
For those that do, says McCarthy, it’s test and re-test situation. Work on the levers, check the outcomes. Lion Nathan has gone through about five measures and been able to track cultural changes in terms of improved company performance.

Why competition fails
HSI’s present culture study is part of its ongoing research work and throws up some interesting links between company culture and performance.
For instance, says McCarthy, there is this widespread belief that competition is good thing. It’s not backed by research and, in real life, encouraging various business units to compete against each other has proved bad idea.
Because it discourages knowledge sharing, the company ends up paying many times over for knowledge acquisition. It also ends up de-motivating more individuals than it motivates, says McCarthy.
Another link the company has been studying is the link between aggressive (competitive) cultures and performance volatility. Its research (due for publication later this year) shows that more aggressive companies

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