Spanish Misalignment

A population in a region cries out for independence. A leader who backs the succession movement finds him promptly dismissed and is now under prosecution. It all doesn’t sound as if it has much to do with Fortune 500 companies.

And yet, experts say that so-called employee alignment is not all that different from the Catalonia drive for independence and how a serious lack of it can make all the difference in the world in whether a company’s workforce backs the corporate mission. Indeed, a recent Korn Ferry study interviewed more than 1,000 executives found significant perception gaps between the views of senior management and those of middle managers and general employees in seven key business dimensions.

The biggest gap was how each group felt about the company goals and vision. Comparison to government are of course different; in Catalonia, the populace was focused on maintaining its own heritage and autonomy. But whatever the reasons for any gap, governments and companies thrive best when leadership and followers are more aligned.

“Part of what we see in organizations is that sometimes there is a disparate gap between the knowledge at the top versus the knowledge elsewhere in the company,” says Lynn A. Isabella, professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. It could be the difference between what the executives know and what the shop floor workers know. Or the gap between what the generals at headquarters see on the map and what the troops in the trenches experience.

Sometimes that difference in viewpoint might not matter. But the problem comes when the leaders can’t or won’t hear that things are going awry. “Some organizations don’t manage the perception gap,” she says. And it only lasts up a point. “Eventually, you get to a tipping point, when there just begin to be so many of those voices that the volume on stereo goes up and you can’t turn it down.” That’s what happened in Barcelona.

In a company, such a situation might occur when the employees get so disaffected and demoralized that they just quit. That is particularly important in the knowledge business, where the workhorse brains of the organization might be programmers or financial wizards. But when the troops start to resign en masse the matter may come as a shock to the leaders if they haven't been listening, says Isabella.

So what’s the answer? The broad theme is to pay attention. Don't block lousy news getting to the executives, which is something that happens in some corporate cultures, says Isabella. More than that, pay attention to what’s going on. Listen to the entire organization; and make it a two-way thing so that the executives explain their vision for the company and how the workers fit in with that, and the workers get heard by the executives. What you don’t want is to suddenly “find the water boiling over the sides because you weren’t watching the pot in the first place,” Isabella says.