The Culture Gap: How Owners and Employees Think Differently About Work

Work is a funny thing. We spend lots of time doing it, yet collectively we’re pretty unhappy with our jobs. Many of us had big dreams as kids, but unfortunately we don’t always end up being able to pay the bills with our dream careers. And love it or hate it, work is not optional for most of us.

We’re used to the idea that work is supposed to be a grind. Despite our high hopes and dreams as kids, the general consensus, both on the street and in the media, is that it’s called work because it’s not fun. That’s why you get paid to do it. Yet science and research have told us time and time again that if people do enjoy their work, care about it, and are invested in the results, they do a much better job. That’s why there’s such a lot of buzz these days around the concept of engagement and, by extension, the concept of culture.

Earlier this year I conducted a survey of employees and entrepreneurs to get a better sense of why many of the initiatives around culture and engagement don’t seem to be moving the needle. I found a surprising gap in how each of these groups thinks about work, and understanding that gap is the key to improving work culture.

What is the difference between the individual who is focused on a steady paycheck, and the business owner who wants to change the world? And what can a better understanding of this difference tell us about how to create a culture that engages.

Through a series of in-depth interviews with executives and individuals, two important elements became clear.

  • Owners Take Choice for Granted
  • Employees Take Stability for Granted

Business owners and executives, by and large, deliberately choose how they want to work. While many entrepreneurs burn the midnight oil, and are available 24×7, they also have the flexibility to blend their work and personal lives over the course of the day. Employees, on the other hand, often have more rigid schedules and an expectation that they will be available during working hours (and sometimes beyond).

Owners also have choice over what they work on. They choose their initiatives, and have a clear sense of how that work connects directly to the bottom line of the business. Employees often have work assigned to them, with no clear sense of how it fits into the larger scheme of the business goals.

Rules and policies, which are created in order to be able to scale and manage complex organizations, often create situations which are limiting and frustrating to employees. If they break a rule, they could lose their job. Business owners, on the other hand, know that at the end of the day, if the company doesn’t make money, it doesn’t matter who showed up at 8:30 vs. 8:45. Without profitability, everyone could lose their job.

While executives and business owners often focus on creating and modeling the values they want to become a part of their organizational culture, the devil is in the details. Individual employees and their managers look for the stability and guidance of policies to help them understand the rules, and if those policies are not aligned with the spirit of the culture, flexibility initiatives often die on the vine. A key reason for that is because executives are not measured on their ability to follow policy, they are focused on results, and in that mode, they often take the flexibility which is inherent in their role for granted.

Employees are typically part of a system, and are required to follow the rules. They are hired into a job which comes with a job description. Typically, their goal is to meet or exceed the requirements of that description, and hopefully that will result in raises, promotions, and other good things. The bald truth, which owners and entrepreneurs know in their gut, is that it doesn’t matter how well you follow your job description if, for example, you are working for Blockbuster when Netflix comes along. Employees may be aware of the business and its competitive landscape, but too often they are unaware of the financial realities of the organization or the industry.

This disconnect is one of the factors that is keeping engagement levels so low. It all boils down to the fact that owners and employees think differently about work. So how can we use this information to move the needle on engagement?

Culture is, by nature, unique to each organization. A set of unwritten rules and expectations that employees learn over time, culture can be both a positive (when it creates an engaging environment and reinforces the values of the organization) or negative (when it creates an inconsistent, unfair, or actively hostile environment). Culture cannot be created by simply defining and publishing a set of values, it has to be propagated in a consistent way, through a combination of hiring and management practices. As you think about culture initiatives in your organization, it’s wise to start with a solid understanding of why employees work in the first place.

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