We want family...?

For the first time, the CIPD’s spring 2015 Employee Outlook survey included questions on organisational culture, what it feels like to work in a particular organisation.

People who didn’t work on their own were asked ‘How would you describe the culture prevailing in your organisation at the moment?’  They were then asked to choose one of the following descriptions:
• An organisation with a family feel, held together by loyalty and tradition. Leaders are viewed as mentors or parents. (‘Family’)
• A formalised and structured place to work, where procedures govern what people do and hold people together. (‘Structured’)
• A dynamic, entrepreneurial, and creative place to work. People stick their necks out and take risks. (‘Dynamic’)
• A result-oriented organisation whose major concern is with getting the job done. People are competitive and goal-oriented, and are held together by an emphasis on winning. (‘Results-oriented’)
Followed by a second question: ‘And still thinking about this organisational culture, what would be your preferred working environment?’  Respondents were given the same four descriptions to choose from.  Hence we know the actual and the preferred cultural type for everyone answering these questions.

Obviously, the descriptions will fit some people's perceptions of the culture in their workplace better than others.  Making people choose from a short list, however, means we get a manageable quantity of information.

Our press release highlighted the finding that the majority of employees wanted to work in an organisation with a 'family' feel as 55% of employees did indeed pick this as their preferred cultural type.  Each to their own.  I couldn’t think of anything worse than having leaders who see themselves as parents – does that mean they expect to treat you like children?  All of these cultures will attract and repel to a certain extent.  Some find comfort in a rule book, others find it a straitjacket.  A dynamic culture might mean there’s no rule book but ‘sticking your neck out’ could mean you lose it, without knowing why.  And while some will relish a ‘winner takes it all’ environment, others will remember it means at least one ‘loser standing small’ (for an example of a results-oriented culture taken to an extreme, watch Glengarry Glen Ross).

The table below summarises the data on actual versus preferred cultural type.

If we read the numbers horizontally, these give the actual cultural types.  Hence we see that the most common actual cultural type is ‘structured’ (46% of employees).  If we read the numbers vertically, these give the preferred cultural type, which shows us that ‘results-oriented’ is the least popular cultural type (10% of employees).

The numbers in the lead diagonal (shaded dark blue) are employees whose actual cultural type matches their preferred one.  We see that just 42% of employees have such a cultural ‘fit’.  Those employees whose preference is for a ‘structured’ culture are most likely to have found it (14% out of 20%) whereas those with a preference for a ‘dynamic’ culture are least likely to have found it (3% out of 15%).

The chart below shows how the percentage of employees with a cultural fit varies according to personal and workplace characteristics.

Those most likely to have a cultural fit are owners and proprietors (who to a large extent determine the culture of their business), those already in a workplace with a ‘family’ feel and those in organisations with fewer than 10 employees (which are predominantly ‘family’ organisations).  In contrast, fit is lowest in the (relatively unpopular) ‘results-oriented’ organisations, in large organisations and among employees with short service.  Presumably the latter group includes people who start a job, find the working culture isn’t for them and quickly move on.

Does culture matter for worker well-being?  If we take job satisfaction as our measure of well-being, then the answer is yes.  The chart below shows the proportion of employees who say they are very satisfied or satisfied with their job by their actual cultural type and by whether or not that cultural type is a fit with their preferred type.

Employees working in organisations with a ‘family’ or ‘dynamic’ culture have higher job satisfaction than employees working in ‘structured’ or ‘results-oriented’ organisations.  But across all cultural types, there is a consistent gap in job satisfaction of some 20 to 30 percentage points between those whose preferred culture matches that of their current organisation and those where there isn’t a match.

We checked the robustness of this result by including both actual cultural type and whether or not an employee’s current cultural type fitted his/her preferences in a multivariate (ordered logit) model that also explained job satisfaction in terms of gender, region, age, contractual status, length of service, managerial status, industry, whether the employee felt under excessive pressure at work and the employee’s perception of their work-life balance.  The results showed that:
• Compared with those working in a ‘family’ organisation, there was a statistically significant and positive effect on job satisfaction from working in a ‘dynamic’ organisation, a small negative effect from working in a ‘structured’ organisation and no statistically significant effect from working in a ‘results-oriented’ organisation.
• There was a strong and highly significant negative effect on job satisfaction if preferred culture did not match actual culture.

In other words, it is cultural fit (or lack of it) that is most important for job satisfaction – which culture that is matters a lot less.

Of course, there are some limitations to the analysis.  We asked people to select the culture they would prefer to work in but we don’t know how strong the preference is.  In other words, if someone says their preferred culture doesn’t match their actual culture, we don’t know if that’s really important to them or if it was almost a split decision (though the analysis implies that – on average – it means quite a lot to people).  In addition, we don’t know whether these preferences are stable or whether they change over time as employees’ priorities change and as they gain experience of different working environments.  A workplace modelled on the Borgias might have a different ‘family feel’ to one modelled on the Waltons.

Values and cultural fit – whether someone will ‘fit in’ – have always been important recruitment criteria for many employers.  I was at a conference last week where a representative from Google said that cultural fit was one of the four qualities looked for in recruits for all types of job at all levels.  In Google’s case, this is called 'Googliness', described as ‘a mashup of passion and drive that’s hard to define but easy to spot’ – rather like a duck.

The survey results, though, remind us that it’s not just employers who are asking whether someone is going to fit in.  Potential employees are – or should be - looking for clues as to what the culture’s really like.  Yes, they’ll read the blurb on the website to see if they identify with what Edgar Schein calls the organisation’s espoused values.  But they should also probe interviewers further on them as well being alert to any instances where the beliefs or actions of the organisation and its employees deviate from those espoused values.  They will also be on the look-out for artefacts - visible symbols that help cement the culture.  One reason why the executive bathroom is on the organisational red list is that it doesn’t sit easily with the meritocratic and relatively egalitarian values that most organisations say they aspire to.

So for employers as much as candidates, the advice is the same.  When on that recruitment date, put on a posh frock but don’t put on a posh accent (or Mockney, if it’s a tech company in Shoreditch) – you’ll never be able to keep it up.




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  • Thanks for comments so far.  Of course, workplace culture is a very rich and subtle concept and every single one of us would probably have a slightly different take on 'what it feels like to work here'.  Similarly, we'd probably all come up with different words and concepts to describe our ideal workplace.  But we wanted some measures that could be quantified so that we could see what effect it was having across the workforce and that does require choices between standardised definitions.  It's early days but we're finding that cultural fit - whether the actual culture type matches preferred type - appears to affect not just employee outcomes (well-being, satisfaction with management) but employer outcomes (business performance - see last week's productivity report).

  • For me, i's the definiton of 'family' that is misleading. I wouldn't define my family as being held together by tradition and loyalty. It's much more than that. As our family grows traditions change and rightly so. Perhpas family is about a group of people of all ages, personality types and individual styles put together who share in successes, laugh together (a lot) and pull together when things get tough. Individuality is encouraged and teamwork is part of the package. They tease you relentlessly but ultimately its about knowing someone has your back when you need it without asking.This is my family and I understand why people would want this as their work culture. I agree with the comments above that the definitions are restrictive. Criteria stated in one definition should not preclude them from another.  

  • "An organisation with a family feel, held together by loyalty and tradition. Leaders are viewed as mentors or parents."

    I think the bit of this description, that leaders are viewed as parents, is not why people said they wanted a family feel to the organisation. I think it is the bit about loyalty and tradition. I felt the options were a bit restricted and plumped for the "family feel" only in preference to the other descriptions. Actually, if it had been available, I would have gone for an organisatin bound together by common values and a drive for innovation. What would that be? Family-dynamic?

  • I feel this research risks drowning in subjectivity. How, for instance, has any given respondent defined a "family" feel to an organisation, and what prevents a "family"-cultured organisation also being dynamic, or indeed results-focussed. (If you are a parent trying to get children to concentrate on their homework and GCSE-programmes you are certainly aware of results-focus existing within "a family").

    ....and as Sarah accurately reflects: "Parenting" is a dynamic progression from the moment of birth onwards to and through adulthood: What assumptions are the datum being used for "parental" attitudes in a corporate setting?

    The above results are certainly interesting, but I'm not sure they are actually more than loosely informative.

  • I guess not wanting a leader who sees themselves as a parent depends on what assumptions you make about "parenting".  Good parenting of adult families is incredibly different to parenting children and used thoughtfully and with awareness can be a useful analogy for leaders struggling to find the best ways to encourage innovation, creativity, decision making and self sufficiency in their teams.