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Good Intentions Can Be Hell

Executives get kudos for worker-centric corporate vision. But bad communication can undermind the good intentions.
Lisa YoonNovember 5, 2002

You tried. You gave them the profit-sharing plan, the generous pay packages, the bagels on Fridays. You hired people from as many different backgrounds as possible, and you made sure people weren’t overworked and got enough quality time away from the grind. You told everyone this was a company that cared about its people—and you really meant it.

But your employees are furious. So why were you the last to find out that they were unhappy?

When it comes to leading the workforce, sometimes it seems as though no good deed goes unpunished. In fact, idealistic company visions can blow up in senior management’s face. This was the case at one advertising agency, studied by Harvard Business School researchers Amy C. Edmondson and Sandra E. Cha. In this month’s Harvard Business Review, their study, “When Company Values Backfire,” chronicles the woes of how a once close-knit community of workers came to view their chief executive as a hypocrite, and offers suggestions on the right and wrong way to communicate corporate values.

Through interviews with the firm’s employees, associate professor Edmondson and doctoral student Cha found that employees often interpret a company’s vision in ways that are very different from senior management’s intention. More important, once employees form their own image of the company vision, anything senior management does that appears at odds with that image will cause employees to cry hypocrisy. What’s worse, because employees are unlikely to take up such grievances with top management, senior leaders are usually in the dark about all the simmering resentment.

In the case of Maverick, the fictionally-named, real-life advertising firm used in the case study, the chasm between management’s intent and employees’ perception widened to dangerous proportions. For example, some employees interpreted the company’s promotion of diversity, teamwork, and camaraderie as a complete rejection of organizational rank and corporate hierarchy. When four long-time employees were named shareholders—an unprecedented event for the agency—one resentful worker told the researches that the CEO founded the company without hierarchy, “everyone’s on the same level.” According to management, the company was never structured in that way.

Edmondson and Cha don’t discourage progressive, “people-oriented” company visions. But they say there are steps to take to avoid perception problems. First, note the researchers, be clear about the company vision. Talk about what you mean in concrete terms. Use specifics and be systematic about the information delivery.

Also, be prudent about your actions as a company leader. Think about how those actions are perceived by the workforce. In turn, anticipate possible negative reaction and explain ahead of time why senior management is taking a particular step and how it, in fact, contributes to company vision.

Finally, give employees a sense of “psychological safety”—that is, let them know it’s appropriate to voice their views, and that negative feedback isn’t cause for retribution.

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