Is Your Culture Bleeding or Breeding Talent?

Finding and retaining talent remains an ongoing challenge for organizations as many find they lack the human capital necessary to drive innovation and future performance. According to the Theresa Agovino, workplace editor for the Society of Human Resource Management, roughly 1 in 3 workers will voluntarily leave this year, causing companies to employ “every tactic, from raising salaries to bolstering benefits to offering more training and education” in the hopes of attracting and keeping talent. But is that enough? We often see companies invest money and resources into attracting fresh talent and providing more training and education—including management and leadership development—when, in fact, new behaviors and different approaches are not supported by leaders nor by the organization’s culture.

Which begs the question, to what extent is your organization positioned to win the war for talent?

Organizations that Bleed Talent

Across industries, workplace culture consistently plays a key role in attracting, engaging, and retaining talent. In contrast, organizations with strong Defensive cultural norms are notorious for draining talent.

  • Passive/Defensive norms compel members to maintain their personal security and safety via self-protective interactions with people. Such norms include going along with what’s popular, maintaining the status quo, following orders (even if they are wrong), and avoiding responsibility and involvement.
  • Aggressive/Defensive norms drive members to look out for their own security and status via self-promoting and task-related activities. Example of such norms include criticizing, trying to dominate and control everything (and everyone), competing with others, and focusing on minutiae at the expense of the bigger picture and overall objectives.

Regardless of whether Defensive norms are passive, aggressive, or both, organizations with strong Defensive cultures tend to offer relatively few opportunities for education, development, involvement, and empowerment. When opportunities are offered, they’re generally not complimented—and often are contradicted—by the behaviors and decisions of the organization’s leaders and managers. 

Studies show that organizations with strong Defensive cultures experience significantly more employee turnover than organizations with less Defensive cultures. In addition, those who work for organizations with Defensive cultures typically report higher levels of dissatisfaction and frustration, and lower motivation and well-being. Many are already looking or are planning to look elsewhere for a job and say that they would not recommend the organization to potential employees (nor would they recommend it to customers).

Cultures that Attract and Breed Talent

On the other hand, studies based on samples ranging from a few hundred to more than 60,000 respondents show that the strength of Constructive workplace norms are positively associated with intentions to stay and the likelihood of recommending the organizations to others as a good place to work.

A Constructive culture is one that encourages members to work to their full potential, take initiative, think independently, participate without taking over, and voice unique perspectives and concerns while working toward consensus. In organizations with strong Constructive cultures:

  • quality is valued over quantity
  • creativity and curiosity are fostered in place of conformity and indifference
  • collaboration and coordination are believed to lead to better results than competition and silos and
  • “doing good” is viewed as more important than “looking good” or “being good”

Organizations with strong Constructive norms not only do a better job of attracting and retaining talent than others, they also enjoy higher levels of employee motivation, satisfaction, and engagement as well as teamwork, interunit coordination, productivity, product and service quality, and performance. They empower their people, involve them in decision making, and invest in their education and development. As important, their leaders support and reinforce Constructive norms both directly and indirectly by their day-to-day behaviors and decisions.

There are numerous opportunities each day for a leader to strengthen Constructive cultural norms, many of which are particularly relevant to attracting and retaining talent. Examples that we’ve seen from leaders who have created more Constructive cultures within their own organizations, include:

Ask for feedback—and act on it. Check in with new employees as well as your longer-term talent to find out what they notice is working well—and what they feel is not working as effectively as it could. Leaders often miss the value of actively receiving feedback to identify unnecessary obstacles and make positive changes.

Check justifications. Another example revolves around enthusiastic new employees who questioned why things are done in a certain way being told “This is the way we’ve always done it,” without further discussion. The lesson for leaders is clear. Listen for when you or others justify doing something simply because it’s the way it’s always been done or because of some event that happened long ago. It’s possible the world has changed since your organization first started doing things that way—and such practices may no longer serve the organization as well as they did in the past.

Make better use of employee data. As another example, an organization struggling to keep talent routinely conducted exit interviews, yet the data from them were never used. Once their new Human Resource director started digging into the data, they discovered the problem was cultural and, more importantly, was one they could address. Most organizations don’t use the employee data that they collect nor are the conclusions from them even shared with leaders. As the leaders of this organization discovered, employee data can flag cultural issues that are driving out talent. The data can also guide leaders in making important changes that improve the organization’s effectiveness. 

If your organization’s culture is Defensive, actions such as these are unlikely to be the modus operandi. Taking the lead to create a more Constructive culture through your behavior, decisions, and interactions will not only help to breed talent, it will also help your organization to be more effective overall.

For more ideas, read Creating Constructive Cultures, which highlights the change journeys of nine organizations in different industries and countries. Based on these examples and forty years of research, the book demonstrates how your leadership team can steer your organization’s culture in a more productive direction and avoid common pitfalls. You can purchase Creating Constructive Cultures directly from the Human Synergistics website or click here to download a sample chapter.


About the Author

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Janet Szumal, PhD

Dr. Janet L. Szumal is a senior research associate for Human Synergistics Inc. and is the author of Creating Constructive Cultures, with Dr. Robert A. Cooke. She has developed various assessments and simulations including Management/Impact®, Organizational Change Challenge™, Project Management Challenge™, Performance Management Challenge™, and Cultural Change Situation™.