July 1, 2008 by Jill Geddes, Partner, Trillium Teams Inc
Without a doubt the view is different from the top of the building than it is from within - by the same token this difference in perspective is also present in the structure of an organization. This gap exists in every company. The cracks start to appear when a small company experiences growth and moves from a flat organization towards a more traditional structure.
What is the Gap?
The gap is defined by the differences in perspective between what the leaders believe to be the challenges within the organization, and what employees in the trenches are experiencing. Company leaders set the vision, goals and strategy, which are then filtered down to the mid level, or the trenches, of an organization. The trenches are responsible for executing on tasks and projects that fall in line with those strategies, within the various silos such as accounting, operations, marketing, product development, or client care.
Leaders hear grumblings of what is going on in the trenches; however, since this information is filtered up through a select few managers and higher level executives, the accuracy and validity are easily skewed. The real pain of the employees is often not felt at the top until it is too late. Employee issues naturally fall lower on the executive priority list, as their concerns are generating revenue, cutting costs, or growing the company. Executives know the value of their workforce, but having a human resources department allows them the dangerous luxury of not directly concerning themselves with employee issues.
Why Mind the Gap?
An incalculable amount of productive time is wasted in the trenches with employees discussing frustrations - manager/employee issues, job security, goals, roles, and procedures not defined, inter-team problems, salary and promotion concerns. In a typical company, time spent discussing these types of concerns averages two hours a week per employee, costing organizations billions a year in lost productivity.
The wider the gap, the greater the potential for negative impact on the bottom line of an organization. The size of the gap results from a variety of situations such as too many layers of bureaucracy, perceived time constraints, physical barriers between leadership and the trenches or executives who turn a blind eye to the real issues.
Recognizing and managing the connection between relevant employee issues and their potential impact on the balance sheet is the key to fostering a successful and productive work environment.
Issues can be qualified into one of the following three categories
- Normal everyday gripes to be handled within the team, such as minor personality conflicts, time management or the weather.
- Confusion and lack of clarity among team members regarding goals, roles, and processes. These issues need to be dealt with on a manager level, as they will affect team productivity.
- Lack of inter-team communication and destructive team management, which affects productivity at all levels. Issues such as these need to be brought to the attention of the executive team for change.
Impact of the Gap
The effects of the gap on the bottom line can range from minor loss of productivity to serious loss of market share. It is important for leaders to be aware of the gap and consistently address issues, so small things do not turn into losing key employees.
- The small things: sick days being used up, employees striving for the bare minimum, longer lunches, more breaks, more appointments away from the office, or excuses of more stress at home.
- Low employee morale: actively disengaged employees fundamentally disconnected from their work doing significant harm to both company productivity and the bottom line. Some common indicators are lack of team motivation, slipping deadlines, negative impact on other team members, producing low quality work, or developing a difficult-to-work-with team reputation.
- Turnover of high performers: a certain amount of attrition is natural and healthy; however, a high turnover rate within a specific team or department is a clear warning signal that should not be ignored. The final blow comes when key employees who hold the heart of the company together leave.
Decreasing the Gap
It is up to leaders to work on decreasing the gap by ensuring they have the proper perspective needed to address internal issues in a timely manner. Communication between the trenches and leadership needs to be a conversation, rather than a town hall meeting. One way to achieve this has been through the use of employee surveys. Sadly, this has become a ritual rather than a tool for change. Regular employee surveys need to be acted on. The real issues need to be diagnosed and addressed, and the trenches need to be kept updated in a consistent and personal manner.
Employee surveys often reflect a lack of inter-team communication and desire for more soft skills training. Investing in appropriate employee development, both on a personal and team level is essential.
The view is different at every level in the organizational structure and it’s important for the leaders at the top, who have the benefit of accessing all levels, to synthesize these perspectives as best they can. That grand view carries the responsibility of ensuring the view is not blocked for everyone by unnecessary barriers.