CEOs these days are under multiple pressures – to produce profits and create shareholder value, to innovate, to differentiate, to attract and retain top talent and to secure “buy in” for a corporate vision, strategy and values.
But the central foundational task – to build and sustain a unified, cohesive workplace – is often the hardest to achieve. “Markets are driven by competition and self-interest, whereas people are brought together in organisations out of shared interest,” says Mark Royal, a senior principal at Korn Ferry Hay Group. “In theory, we bring activity under organisational umbrellas to join people in a larger team effort where commonality of interest breeds cooperation. In real life it doesn’t always work out that way.”
People don’t get out of bed in the morning to maximise share price. They get out of bed to make a difference
Royal identifies several keys to building unity from the boardroom to the mailroom. “Consensus requires clarity around a broad organisational direction,” he says. “What is our mission at the highest level? People don’t get out of bed in the morning to maximise share price. They get out of bed to make a difference. Giving people a collective purpose and a sense that they are in it together is critical. But you also need to align personal incentives to keep them invested in organisational goals,” adds Royal. “Employees need to see how their efforts in working toward those goals will impact their compensation, their growth opportunities and their futures. Leaders must be able to relate the broad organisational mission to the individual employee’s world.
What does this mission or strategic goal mean for the company, the team and for Royal personally?”
“Corporate culture,” he says, “fills in the white space around formal plans and systems. If you carefully manage and shape the culture, it reinforces formal messaging about direction and helps employees understand how they can help the company move forward.”
How can companies fill in that white space?
“CEOs and senior leaders have to shape the culture,” explains Royal. “It’s shaped by how leaders talk about the mission, the stories they tell, the key values they articulate and the heroes they create. How they reward and recognise employees also influences the culture. If leaders talk about the importance of collaboration, but only promote strivers and Type A personalities, they’re sending a mixed message. When senior management is inattentive to the need for strong communication from the top flowing through the organisation, or there’s a disconnect between the work culture they say they’re striving for and the one that exists, the resulting vacuum allows people to create their own narrative, which can be divisive.”
While unity is unquestionably a desirable organisational attribute, competition, which is a naturally divisive force, can bring out the best in people – the best ideas and the best performance – and is often used within organisations to drive creativity.
“Competition among corporate teams or within them can be positive,” says Royal, provided it is organisation-focused and people are motivated by its best interests. “As long as people feel they’ve been heard, that their effort was valued, internal competition doesn’t need to be divisive,” he notes. “Where competition is self-interested and driven by personal goals, it’s more likely to be negative.” The implication that “being heard” is more important than carrying the day – it raises the team’s collective intelligence. Also essential was having a team leader who let the team members know how their work fit into the larger mission. To quote one of the research respondents’ bottom line “to create unity, leaders have to show they are human and that they care. If people know you care about them, they will follow.”