Leaders See Less

Hierarchies have odd effects on us, physically and mentally. Where we sit in a power structure can influence our stress levels, our ability to cooperate, and even how we perceive the reality of our organizations.

We’ve just completed an analysis of more than 500 organizations and a pattern that emerged from the data was one that we see all too often with our clients: your perception of your organization’s commitment to its people is correlated with your position in that organization.

The higher up you are, the better your workplace seems (not just for you, but for everyone else, too). 

We surveyed hundreds of employees and had them score their organization not only on individual engagement measures (e.g. I know what is expected of me at work) but on collective conditions, too (e.g. My organization welcomes and promotes diversity). Question after question, we saw responses correlated to the respondents’ position within the firm. We’ve included two (of many) plots of this below. The line is the trend of all responses and the blue dots represent the 25 organizations which had highest overall participation rate in our survey.

So what does this mean?

If you’re a leader, it’s imperative that you challenge your own perceptions of the organization. However you feel about things, your people feel worse about them. Moreover, because perception is reality, your organization likely has differing and competing realities and cultures. That multiplicity will work against you as you struggle to adapt to changing conditions outside of the firm, so you must work to align and unify your culture. Here, quantifying your commitment to a better, shared culture is a powerful first step in uniting cultures.

If you’re a team member, consider that your manager’s inability to relate to your daily experiences may not be driven by malice. That’s the (potentially) good news. The bad news is that you may have to go to lengths to help her understand the difference between your realities.

What happens if you ignore these differences?

Leaders who fail to understand the reality of work for their people are doomed to overestimate their organization’s capabilities. We too often see leaders, who have little shared understanding with their teams, saddle unrealistic expectations on their firms and grow panicked when those expectations are left unmet. Then comes the vicious cycle of finger-pointing and hail mary throws while arguing that conditions are too dire to focus on something “soft” like engagement and collaboration. These leaders (and often their organizations) don’t last long under these conditions.

If the fish can’t tell that it’s tail has rotted away, all of its dreams of swimming will still not produce forward momentum.

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