Why Bosses Think They Are Always Right

Michael Distefano on why leaders see things so differently from their workers.

In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success—yet studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, president of the Korn Ferry Institute and chief operating officer, Asia Pacific, explores the concept of agility: who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it.

In his Harvard commencement address, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg challenged not just the Ivy League college’s new graduates but also new business leaders around the world when he said, “To keep society moving forward, we have a generational challenge—to not only create jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose.”

Zuckerberg’s comments echo numerous studies about how millennials prize having a job purpose over a paycheck. Whereas past generations found purpose in their work, today many employees feel their jobs are not meaningful enough. 

Recent research by Korn Ferry bears this out as well. We found a big disparity between how senior leaders and employees view their organizations’ purpose and the opportunities provided to contribute to achieving that aim. Put another way, employees understand their company’s goals but are unhappy with how they are held accountable for reaching them.

For the study, researchers surveyed nearly 1,000 executives to get their views on seven key business areas and found significant perception gaps between the views of senior management and those of their employees. Our data found that on a global level, senior management perceives their companies’ “Purpose and Vision,”—the organization’s aspirations, core enduring aim, reason why it exists, and what it stands for—11.6 percent more positively than do their employees. Similarly, it terms of commitment—or the extent to which individuals are given the opportunity and are motivated to contribute fully to the current and future success of the organization—employees were 14 percent more negative than senior management. Regionally, the discrepancies between these two categories were more pronounced in Asia-Pacific (APAC) and more aligned in North America (NA), while Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) ranked in the middle, likely an effect of the hierarchical and authoritarian management culture in APAC versus the more open and communicative styles in EMEA and NA.

The difference in how positively senior management viewed their companies on these metrics versus their employees underscores the need for more agile leadership. With talent and culture two key competitive differentiators to an organization’s future success, leadership is still falling short on one of the most basic elements for survival: keeping employees happy.

Now leaders will say they have an impossible job; they are never going to win with employees on compensation, for instance. Granted, that is probably true. But it is also true that the nature of leadership is fundamentally changing, and managing out of spreadsheets and emails doesn’t provide organizations with the agility they need with staff in today’s environment.

There are certain truths that are universal among employees across generations and demographics. They like direction. They like a career narrative. They like to be rewarded for performance. They like to have defined boundaries. We categorize how well companies perform these practices under the rubric of “Accountability and Fairness,” or the establishment of a performance-driven environment where people take ownership of their responsibilities and are rewarded equitably for their real contribution. On this measure, employees view their companies’ performance 12.2 percent more negatively than senior management. That may be because, as Zuckerberg also said to much less media attention, “technology and automation are eliminating many jobs … many people feel disconnected and depressed and are looking to fill a void.”

One way to fill that void is by developing a construct of leadership that is more agile in the way it engages and delights employees.