Cultural Perception in the Workplace: Mind the Gap | Bonfyre

Cultural Perception in the Workplace: Mind the Gap

5 min

It’s a new year, full of new opportunities to build a winning company culture strategy that aligns employees on key business objectives and engages them along the way. But if you’re not looking out for gaps in cultural perception in the workplace, your strategy might go belly up before it even starts to take effect.

The Katzenbach Center is a PwC firm that offers leadership and organizational culture consulting services. In December of 2018, the firm shared the findings of its most recent Global Culture Survey. For the first Bonfyre Breakdown of the new year, we’ll be taking a close look at the results, but here’s a preview of what you can expect.

Employees are calling–louder than ever–for their company cultures to change. Executives and company leaders, however, aren’t heeding their words, creating a gap around cultural perception in the workplace that could be bad news for company performance.

What is a culture perception gap?

The most prominent finding from The Katzenbach Center’s survey is one that likely confirms the hunches of any seasoned HR manager or culture practitioner operating today. At a high level, every data point illustrates that employees have a starkly different view of their company culture than executives and leaders.

The Katzenbach Center has a name for this disparity that might sound familiar to any returning readers of the Gather Around blog: a “perception gap.”

Put simply, executives and leaders view both their current company cultures and culture strategies in high regard. Their employees, however, took off the rose-tinted glasses a while ago. They feel underserved by what their cultures currently offer, and want it to evolve into something more collaborative, innovative, and agile. But most of all, employees want this evolution to happen now.

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We know it’s urgent because 80% of the study’s respondents said their organization’s culture must evolve in the next three to five years for the company to be successful, competitive, and retain the best talent. These same criteria were measured in the 2013 installment of the Global Culture Survey, and back then 51% of respondents felt their organizational culture needed to evolve. That data point is nothing to sneer at either, but the nearly 30% growth this measure’s seen in just five years is proof of just how much organizational culture matters to employees.

There’s just one problem. Leaders aren’t doing a good job of convincing employees that culture is a priority. Executives and leaders think they’re doing a great job, but the data tells a different story:

  • 63% of leaders said they had strong cultures, but only 41% of employees felt the same.
  • 71% of leaders said culture was “on their agenda” (in other words, a strategic priority), but 52% of employees disagreed.
  • 58% of leaders believe their organizational chart reflects “how things get done.” Less than half of employees agree with them.

What this data makes clear is that the culture perception gap amounts to more than just minor quibbles between employee and employer. It is a fundamental misalignment between leaders and employees on what the organization’s work experience is really like.

What does a culture perception gap look like at a deeper level?

Not too long ago, we here at the Gather Around blog conducted a survey and discovered a gap around cultural perception in the workplace, too. Our perception gap, however, was between executives and HR business partners. You can read our full report here, but here’s a quick summary of our results.

RELATED: How to Close the Business Culture Perception Gap

We surveyed executives and C-suite leaders, HR business partners, internal communicators, and other industry leaders about their company cultures. Our results similarly showed a significant disparity in the way the executives viewed their cultures as compared to participants in HR roles.

Much like the Katzenbach Center’s report, executives were quite optimistic about their organization’s performance and cultural success. When asked about how well their company performs in the areas of knowledge sharing, internal communications, employee turnover, and listening skills, leaders rated their organizations highly. Participants coming from HR backgrounds, however, rated their organization’s performance lower across the board.

One possible reason for this gap around cultural perception in the workplace might have to do with the different ways HR experiences the company versus executives. HR managers are required by the very nature of their job function to be far more in tune with the day-to-day concerns of employees than a CEO might be.

It’s not a surprise to us that the people who keep their ears to the ground (that is, if they’re doing their jobs right), know what’s what when it comes to culture and employee expectations. But to clarify, it’s not an indictment of executives and other high-level leaders that they might not be fully abreast of employee attitudes and concerns–especially when you consider the full responsibilities of the C-suite. It just means these parties–executives, HR, and employees all the way up to the front lines–need to be communicating with each other more.

We’d like to think our data reflects what a gap in cultural perception in the workplace looks like on a more granular level. These gaps are more than just a disagreement over whether a company’s culture is good or bad. A culture perception gap means expectations for key cultural touchstones like internal communication, knowledge sharing, and feedback collection have not been managed appropriately. And when that happens, it’s up to leaders to right the ship.

How to find a gap in cultural perception in the workplace

Perception gaps arise when the expectations of employees fall out of alignment with the strategic priorities of the company and its leaders. The expectation misalignment can go in any number of directions.

It might be that employees are expecting more out of their workplace offerings, but the company’s leaders are either too busy or too complacent to notice. Or it could be that company leaders are changing the organization’s strategic direction, forcing the employees themselves to alter their own expectations of their workplace and its culture.

Regardless, if leaders aren’t keeping a pulse on their attitudes and expectations of employees, the perception gap will only widen.

Yes, some degree of responsibility for this gap rests with employees. In an ideal world they would voice their discontentment as soon as they detect it and without fear of retribution. But the sheer amount of formal and informal influence leaders have over culture means those at the top of the organizational chart are still most responsible for the direction culture takes.

In a prior installment of the Bonfyre Breakdown, we talked all about the process of getting feedback from employees. It’s not particularly easy, and it can take a lot of time to sort through the information they give you, but ultimately, it’s necessary it if you’re at all serious about finding your culture perception gap.

In order to pinpoint the source of misaligned expectations, leaders need to open up lines of communication with employees. For leaders, this might require making yourself vulnerable in order to hear some tough, but necessary feedback. These conversations need to happen all the way down the organizational chart, too. The larger an organization is, the bigger the potential for expectation misalignment, so the lines of communication need to be clear from the C-suite all the way down to the frontlines.

Finally, once you have feedback on employees’ expectations, act on it. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: every employee wants to feel like they have a voice, and they’ll know they have one once they see changes being made that directly address their expectation concerns. When it comes to the cultural perception in the workplace, everyone loses when no one minds the gap.


This month’s Bonfyre Breakdown examined data from the Global Culture Survey 2018 conducted by Pricewaterhousecoopers and The Katzenbach Center.

Bonfyre Breakdown is the featured article series in our Monthly Roundup newsletter, a collection of our favorite culture, engagement, and communications articles from across the web. Subscribe today to see all the articles highlighted in the latest newsletter!

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