What You Don’t Know Will Cost You

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Grodnitzky, Ph.D.
March 14, 2023

What have your people been trying to tell you about your leadership style or culture that you haven’t heard? Is there something that frustrates them or pushes them beyond their wits’ end?  Are your actions or decisions driving people toward the fire exits?

If you don’t know the answer to these and other critical questions – without guessing – it’s going to cost you, sooner or later. In a big way.

Over the past few weeks, well beyond the time frame of the Great Resignation, I have seen several of our client companies losing key, high-performing employees. While the specific reasons vary, the common thread is that these key employees can’t take it anymore. The employees’ personal reality and the organizational social reality don’t align.

The Personal Reality Conundrum

Personal reality is information and experience that can’t be shared directly: We may both look at the sky and say it’s blue, but there is no way to know whether we are seeing the same blue.  

If your employees’ personal reality can’t be shared directly, how can we possibly learn about it? We can talk to our employees – particularly our direct reports and key employees – about their experiences with us as leaders and in our culture. If you have an open and honest relationship with them, prepare to get responses you may not want to hear. When you do, get curious, not critical. Be grateful! You now have an opportunity to adapt rather than lose critical talent. What you don’t know will cost you.

So why does personal reality matter in business? Because your employees’ personal reality must align with your organization’s social reality or culture.

The Social Reality Influence

Social reality refers to the reality that is agreed upon by groups of people – such as employees – and sustained by the culture of the group or organization.

The line between personal reality and social reality is porous. This means they can influence each other.

A strong social reality can influence someone’s personal reality. For example, in a culture that believes in what I refer to in my book  as the “Profit Paradox” – that profits follow culture – employees who have a personal reality or belief that profit comes first will often adapt their personal reality to align with the social reality.

A strong personal reality can influence or change an organization’s social reality. Many times, I have worked in a manufacturing environment and observed the departing machine operator tell the arriving machine operator, “Don’t work too hard!” They are not kidding. Their personal reality is often something like this: If you work too hard and are more productive than I am on my shift, you will make me look bad. Or they may believe that there is an adversarial relationship between employee and employer, so employees must do what is necessary, but no more. These types of personal realities can very quickly influence the social reality and transform a performance-based culture to a mediocre one.

The terms “quiet quitting” and “bare minimum Mondays” are current examples of personal realities informing social realities.

The Alignment Solution

Why focus on aligning personal and social realities? Failure to do so will cost you.

If your organization’s social reality communicates that you care about your people and that culture is important, you will attract employees who already possess that personal reality or who will adapt their personal reality to align with your social reality. Those employees who cannot align with your social reality will leave. I would submit that this is a very good thing.

But let’s consider another scenario: Your organization communicates that you care about your people and that culture is important. You select and develop employees who align with that message. But then you don’t invest in capacity. You overwork your employees and expect (tacitly or explicitly) that they will be available 24/7. Your employees will leave because your actions don’t align with the social reality you communicated. And your best performers will leave first – they are the ones who have other employment options. You will be left with mediocre performers. 

How to Act on This Information

Get to know your employees. REALLY get to know them. Ask every one of your direct reports and key employees these five questions:

  1. Why do you stay with this organization?  
  2. What makes this organization irresistible to you?  
  3. What troubles you about my/our leadership or our organizational culture?  
  4. For what type of offer would you leave?
  5. How can we improve? What can we do that would make you more likely to stay?

Note: These are not why questions. They are what and how questions. Why questions ask for an opinion. What and how questions ask for specifics. Don’t settle for superficial responses like, “I love it here!” While those responses may feel good to hear, they do not answer the question.  Follow up with questions like this: “What about this place makes you love it?”

Aligning your employees’ personal realities with your organization’s social reality will save you time, energy, effort and money, in the middle of this ongoing war for talent.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

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