5 min read
This post is an introduction to a five part series where I explain a framework an organization should follow to create a thriving culture. Subscribe to receive the rest of the series.
I’ve been lucky to have been part of planning, building, and deploying employee experience programs in dozens of companies in the past 8 years. Some were massive engagement wins. Some, complete flops. Far too many up in the middle, a coin toss if employees will respond well.
One of my main observations is that in some companies engagement comes easily.
In other companies, employees ignore or push off any new initiative.
What is the difference between these two types of companies? This is a core problem I want to help solve. It’s something I’ve spent a long time considering and pieced together a framework to explain the difference.
The framework allows you to look at where the program engagement fails, and determine the steps to redeploy and engage real action and change.
Before I explain a high level framework create amazing cultural success, we need to start with what isn’t causing program failure…
Common myths about the causes of employee experience program failure
There are a number of common responses to “why do you think your program failed?” Most of them are myths. I’m going to talk through 3 of the most common responses.
Myth: It’s just “bad communication”
The “go-to” answer for almost every program failure, is “we didn’t communicate the program effectively.” Every time I hear that answer it feels completely unsatisfying. Communication strategy is a key to success for sure. It’s an important component. But it’s far from the full picture. If it was the full picture, the following scenarios would be impossible
- You create a killer communication plan, and a strong program marketing strategy yet the program never reaches full participation.
- You launch programs that reach 100% participation metrics without sending no emails, providing ample documentation, or hosting a kickoff training. (I’m looking at your annual performance review process.)
“Communicate more effectively” can’t be the answer to most program engagement questions, if the above two statements are possible. You can’t skip out on effective communication, but it’s not sufficient to guarantee program success.
Myth: It’s because “managers aren’t engaged”
This is a common catch-all, that is actually partially true. But poor manager engagement is a symptom, not the cause. To blame poor manager engagement in the program for the failure of the program is like blaming a runny nose as the cause for a cold.
Statements like “we just need to better engage managers” become the only answer to every problem. But it’s not the only thing that matters.
In most cases, if we fix other issues, line-managers will engage. We need to develop them as leaders. We need to build programs and initiatives with them. We need to trust them.
Myth: It’s just “too many platforms”
I hear this all the time. Stop telling yourself this. Your employees have dozens of apps on their personal phones that they use every day. The problem isn’t that they have too many platforms. It’s that they don’t know which tool to use for what.
While simplification of platforms starts with good intentions, it has morphed into a phobia for many executives and HR leaders. We’ve seen the extreme side of this in the ERP era. One tool to rule them all is not the right solution.
The core principle shouldn’t be one less tool. The core principle should be more clear and effective tools. When employees know what to use and where to go they will feel empowered not encumbered.
The problem with each of these responses is that they lead to a reactive response I call the Cultural Flatline Cycle.
Cultural Flatline Cycle
As organizations, our goal is to have ever increasing cultural engagement. We want an environment where employees and teams feel a sense of purpose, connection, leadership, opportunity. We want our employees to feel that they are part of a winning team. We want our employees to believe they work for an organization that cares about their wellbeing.
When a company is succeeding culturally the priority, processes, and patterns align with the company’s vision and mission. Cultural engagement helps align the business and everyone can work together more productively.
When a company is flatlining culturally employees feel disconnected and the organization struggles to deliver. Cultural flatline creates a flatline of business outcomes as well. You can’t fix cultural flatlining with free food and foosball tables. But we see companies try it all the time.
These are the common phases of the cultural flatline cycle:
- New Program: Management or the HR team adds new “Program” or initiative.
- Launch: Launch in an all hands or staff meeting.
- Spike: Employees engage for a short period.
- Culture Flattens: Within weeks the program engagement dies, and culture returns.
- (Repeat) Add New Program or Initiative: The executive and HR team end up back where they started, adding new programs to see if they can “fix” culture.
In terms of cultural engagement the Culture Flatline Cycle is a constant declining wave. You may get initial spikes with each new program, but we don’t want a declining curve.
What’s Needed to Build an Amazing Employee Experience
So, it’s not just the managers, it’s not “fewer tools”, it’s not just better communication. What is it?
The key to effective culture is a positive feedback loop. We like to think of it like a flywheel. I love Jim Collins visualization of a flywheel in Good to Great:
Picture a huge, heavy flywheel — a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible.
You have to push the large wheel with great effort, and it moves imperceptibly at first. But the key to a flywheel is that it creates momentum. It may be hard to get moving, but once it’s going it will continue in motion. It may even be hard to stop.
The most important principle of the flywheel is the compounding return on effort. No “one push” makes it happen. Continuous small inputs add up into an impressive output.
In a cultural flywheel we have a compounding return of trust and cultural engagement.
There are essentially 4 actions that you take to move your culture forward positively.
- Measure: Proactively measure employee engagement
- Plan: Set strategic goals for a target cultural pillar: purpose, leadership, connection, appreciation, opportunity, success, or wellbeing
- Create: Collaborate with leaders and employees in the design and development process
- Engage: Ongoing, and long term engagement: Launch, roll-out, feedback, training, documentation.
As you take the right actions to listen with an open mind, plan intentionally, build with your employees, and engage employees in the solution, you’ll create a positive feedback loop.
The positive feedback loop will give you an increased understanding of employees needs that allows you to create more effective solutions. Those solutions will help employees feel heard, and create higher levels of trust which will allow you to receive more honest feedback.
I’m going to dedicate a post to each of the 4 steps of the process, along with how you can apply this framework and build buy-in within your organization.
I’m going to show you examples of the framework and make recommendations for each stage. The series will roughly go in this order:
- Creating a strategy for an employee experience program
- Developing the content and processes for an employee experience program
- Successfully deploying an employee experience program
- How to measure the impact of your employee experience program
- How to get buy-in on your initiative from the CEO and rest of the C-heads
Build a Culture of Connection
- Help team members feel a sense of purpose, connection, leadership, opportunity.
- Help team members feel that they are part of a winning organization.
- Help team members believe they work for an organization that cares about their wellbeing.