So You Think You Have a Great Culture? Think Again!

PwC recently published the 2018 Global Culture Survey and here’s the key conclusion:

Employees feel less positive about their workplace culture than their employers or senior leadership.

Here are some interesting findings from the survey:

  • 80% of employees today believe that in order for their organisation to succeed in the future, their culture will need to change (it was only 51% in 2013!)
  • 43% of employees believe that their company walks the talk when it comes to culture (as opposed to 63% at the C-suit and board level)
  • 71% of leaders say that culture is an important item on their agenda, while only 48% of their employees perceive it to be true
  • 87% of C-suite and board members feel proud to be a part of their organisation, but that is not the case for their employees. Only 57% feel proud to belong.

These findings are alarming and they point to a problem we cannot ignore:

Senior leaders have major blind spots when it comes to culture.

Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to culture

Assuming that culture is on our side – when in fact it’s not – can’t lead to anything good.

There is no strategy or business plan that can survive when faced with a culture that’s determined to put up resistance.

Culture is the operating system our companies run on.

And it’s critical that this operating system evolves and gets aligned with the company’s strategy and key business objectives.

One of the main prerequisites of a healthy culture is a leadership team that’s willing to take a long, objective look at the current culture and evaluate how it hinders and how it supports the company’s purpose, mission and vision.

Healthy cultures can only be created by leadership teams that are willing to do the hard and often deeply personal work that will enable everyone in the organisation to thrive.

The blind spots that hold leaders back

We all have blind spots that prevent us from seeing the full picture of reality.

However, research demonstrates that senior leaders have larger blind spots than the rest of us.

In fact, the higher your position on the corporate ladder, the larger your blind spots tend to be.

Jim Haudan and Rich Berens recently published a brilliant book: “What Are Your Blindspots: the 5 Misconceptions That Hold Leaders Back”.

They define leadership blindspots as “areas where our existing beliefs and experiences preclude us from having the most enlightened view of how to lead most effectively”.

I would rephrase it slightly in the context of culture and say that:

Cultural blind spots are the areas that preclude leaders from being able to shape a culture that supports their company’s purpose and brings their vision to life.

Haudan and Berens identified five primary leadership blind spots: purpose, story, engagement, trust and truth.

Here’s the overview of each blind spot and some of the questions that leaders should be asking themselves if they hope to have the intended impact and cultivate a culture that brings their vision to life:

1. Purpose

People today are thirsty for a purpose. They want to do meaningful work that contributes to something bigger than themselves.

However, the reality is that while most leaders declare their commitment to purpose, up to 90% of employees don’t think the stated mission really drives their company. This mismatch is deadly for engagement.

If most of the conversations with your team focus on boosting the numbers and improving the “bottom line”, it might be time to rethink your approach.

Purpose and profits are not mutually exclusive objectives. In fact, based on the findings published in the book “Firms of Endearment”, companies who are purpose-driven outperform others in the long terms by as much as 1681%.

Questions to ask yourself: 

  • Do we have a clear purpose that expresses our company’s desired impact on the world?
  • Do I walk the talk: do my daily words and actions support our espoused purpose?
  • How can I make sure that our strategic planning and implementation is underpinned and guided by our purpose?
  • What are the specific examples of purpose-driven decisions that we had taken in the past and should be taking in the future?

2. Story

Many leaders believe that the stories they share are engaging and meaningful for people.

The chances are, however, that you are not doing as good a job as you could when it comes to telling compelling stories about your company’s origins, current challenges and future goals.

Most executives believe that their companies deliver clear and compelling messages, but employees disagree.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I mostly talk about EBITDA, ROIC, and CAGR – instead of sharing inspiring stories that have the capacity to touch people’s hearts as well as their minds?
  • How can I have a better balance between the rational and the emotional?
  • Do I clearly demonstrate how my employees’ contributions help make our company special?
  • How can we create a strategy statement that will generate a sense of excitement and adventure?
  • How can we collect, document and share stories that will drive engagement and support cultivating the right culture?

3. Engagement

Executives often believe that rational arguments are enough to convince people. The truth is that human beings are rarely purely rational. In fact, more often than not, we are emotional beings who rationalise our emotional decisions.

Engaging people requires a meaningful dialogue and appealing to people’s emotions.

Instead of sharing data-packed powerpoint slides, you’ll need to truly connect with your employees or team members and engage them in the issues that matter.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • When was the last time I sat down with people from my organisation in a town-hall meeting and engaged in a dialogue about our goals, challenges and purpose?
  • How can I reduce talking at people and have more meaningful conversations with them instead?
  • What are the ways to consistently collect our employees’ input on matters that are important for our business?

4. Trust

Do you sometimes think that people will not do the right thing unless you tell them exactly what to do?

The reality is that when we are forced to stick to rigid instructions, we disengage. We resort to mindlessly going through the motions, without using our initiative, talents and full capabilities.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I tend to direct people not just around what to do but also how to do it?
  • How can I walk the fine line between guiding my team members and trusting them to use their judgment at work?
  • How can I encourage people in my team to take calculated risks and come up with innovative solutions to important problems?

5. Truth

I’ve seen this blind spot in action more times than I can count.

Executives often believe that their people will tell them the truth. Even when the truth is hard to hear.

Well, they won’t – if it doesn’t feel safe to do so!

In many organisations that I know, people are paralysed by fear that being too candid will have negative consequences for their career, status or relationships at work.

There is another obstacle you’ll experience in your quest for truth.

In their book, Haudan and Berens quote neuro-research showing that power and accomplishment diminish our brain’s ability to experience empathy.

It’s safe to assume that simply because you are higher in the hierarchy than others, it will be harder for you to understand your people. As Haudan and Barrens say, don’t take it personally – “It’s chemical.”

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How can I demonstrate that I am willing to hear the truth?
  • How can I create an environment where it is safe for people to be open?
  • How can I encourage real, deep and truthful conversations to take place in our meetings instead of by the water-cooler?
In summary

We live in times of exponential change. Technological, social, financial and legislative developments force companies to rethink and reimagine work, their business and operating models.

This new landscape requires companies to develop new synergies, tap into collective organisational knowledge and push the envelope in unprecedented ways.

For this to be possible, we need leaders who are deeply in touch with reality – who keep their hand on the pulse of what’s happening in their markets and in their organisations.

We need courageous executives and managers who won’t be afraid to identify their blind spots and act on them – ASAP!


Haudan, Jim. What Are Your Blind Spots? Conquering the 5 Misconceptions that Hold Leaders Back: Conquering the 5 Misconceptions that Hold Leaders Back, McGraw-Hill Education. Kindle Edition.

Sisodia, Rajendra. Firms of Endearment. FT Press. Hardcover Edition.

PwC’s Culture Survey Source: Katzenbach Centre Global Culture Survey

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