Bridging the gap between the field and HQ.
Workplace culture is powerful. It’s comprised of intangibles mixed with deliberate actions that collectively represent the norms and mindset of a company. It’s a social construct that defines a workplace and its workers and even a brand, for better and worse.
While it’s tempting to create a list of core principles, like authenticity, value, and transparency, and think that’s all there is to it, workplace culture demands more. It is multi-dimensional, fluid, in constant need of tending, and inextricably linked to everything a company wants to accomplish.
There’s no shortage of reference material on workplace culture. It has been dissected and documented in studies that reveal common defining characteristics and distinct cultural styles. Companies integrate these into larger workplace frameworks that help them define individuals’ styles, as well as the values of leaders and employees.
Disparity in how culture is applied, silently sabotages company intent.
Harvard Business Review breaks down the process of pinpointing and shaping organizational culture in “The Culture Factor,” published in Jan./Feb. 2018. Time spent with this piece followed by leadership discussion about independence and response to change can help plot a path toward a fitting cultural style: caring, purpose, learning, enjoyment, results, authority, safety, or order.
But that’s only the beginning. If leadership is serious about harnessing its elusive power, culture can’t be relegated to a secondary HR function over the long term. Leadership must own it—all of it—all of the time. Yes, company leaders need to shape it and protect it. Still, to reap the rewards of positive culture, they must also apply their values and norms evenly across the entire organization.
Disparity in how culture is applied silently sabotages company intent. Perhaps, nowhere in direct selling is that so evident as the cultural conflict that arises when the field tests boundaries with corporate employees.
Recognize this scenario? A top field leader tries to skirt a rule. A customer service representative does her job to uphold corporate policy with professionalism and integrity. The field leader behaves with arrogance and disrespect toward the company employee. Dissatisfied with the interaction, the field leader complains, and the employee is admonished in some way.
Flash forward to the unintended, yet predictable scenario that follows: The field leader visits HQ later, where an abundance of praise is heaped on within earshot of the customer service rep., who is now keenly aware of the value inequity within the company culture.
Managing this type of conflict is an art form, and it starts with equalizing value among all who contribute to the system.
“If there’s not an inherent level of respect that’s consistent throughout the system, then you’re going to have conflict and situations where entitlement occurs,” Noah Westerlund, senior vice president of business development with SUCCESS Partners, says.
To be sure, direct selling is a field-focused industry. A field of multi-million dollar earners is the stuff of dreams. But the value placed on the field should not be greater than that of the $12/hour customer service representative that keeps business moving forward every day.
“No one is suggesting that everyone needs to have the same level of reward or the same access to those rewards because contributions to the system are unbalanced. Some people just contribute a whole lot more. But that doesn’t mean that there should be different levels of respect toward individuals,” Westerlund says.
Customer service representatives would certainly be reprimanded for providing improper service or not adhering to company values. Yet, too many times field leaders aren’t criticized or counseled for breaking the same cultural norms. Why?
It’s on leadership to foster mutual respect, regardless of perceived individual contributions.
It’s important to remember headquarters employees create those red carpet recognition events where corporate showers the field with praise and rewards. The irony is not lost on employees who work tirelessly to bring the company’s vision to light, yet seldom receive thanks.
Employee recognition is a critical driver to engagement. Quantum Workplace, experts in employee engagement, conducts 45 Best Places to Work surveys across the country. Their 2019 Direct Selling survey of headquarters employees of 24 nominated companies, points to general trends and helps contextualize what’s going on in the industry.
Quantum Workplace’s survey found that six in 10 respondents affiliated with direct selling were favorable to the survey item, “If I contribute to the organization’s success, I know I will be recognized.” That is below the national average of 75 percent.
“One of the core needs that all employees have is to feel recognized for their work and feel they are helping the team and organization achieve its goals,” Shane McFeely, Quantum Workplace lead researcher, says.
“People differ in how they like to receive recognition—some like it publicly, while others prefer private recognition. Therefore, it is really an art to getting that recognition right. Managers and senior leaders have to work to individualize their recognition and ensure that it comes off authentically,” McFeely says.
Just as a company creates formal recognition or compensation for the field, consider a defined and scheduled set of internal ways to recognize and value the contributions of employees. They don’t have to be compensation based—maybe it’s free, healthy snacks in the break room, credit at the company store or simply showing interest in who they are and the contributions they make.
“It’s important to remember headquarters employees create those red carpet recognition events where corporate showers the field with praise and rewards.”
-Shane McFeely, Lead Researcher, Quantum Workplace
There’s a great machine of people who lift the company and the C-suite through their daily actions. If those people don’t do their jobs, it doesn’t matter how awesome the CEO is or how smart or charismatic.
“Having a sense of humility and self-awareness as an executive team is critical if you want to truly understand and value your employees,” Westerlund says.
Humility also creates space for the kind of effective leadership/employee communication necessary to build and maintain positive workplace culture.
When Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh wanted to better communicate company culture to new hires, he sought employee input. Brief, unedited, sometimes anonymous, but all together personal, employee depictions of Zappos culture were compiled into a mini-book distributed to all new hires.
“Every edition of our culture book includes both the good and the bad so that people reading the book can get a real sense of what our culture is like. With each new edition, it would also be a way of documenting how our culture was evolving over time,” Hsieh writes in his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.
Zappos’s investment in culture, along with customer service and employee training and development, played a huge role in hitting a $1 billion gross merchandise goal two years early.
“Even today, our belief is that our Brand, our Culture and our Pipeline are the only competitive advantages that we will have in the long run…Everything else can and will eventually be copied,” Hsieh writes.
Direct Selling could take some cues from Zappos. While Quantum Workplace data shows great progress, communication challenges still exist. The industry’s best places to work lag behind the national average for employees knowing what their goals and accountability are. Yet, 85 percent of employees believe they work with people committed to producing top quality work and 83 percent gave high marks in their belief the organization will be successful in the future.
Perhaps, it’s time for trusted leadership to shift ever-so-slightly away from the field, hone in on the wants, needs and value of employees, and explore how a split focus would positively impact your workplace culture, your brand and your profits.