Your Company Culture Vaccine: Accept It or Reject It?

As the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out continues across the United States and globally, many individuals have pondered whether to be vaccinated or not. Some people have expressed personal reservations, hesitancies, or even blatant disapproval of the vaccine, while others have embraced it with a sense of ease, comfort, and hope. According to an online survey of 5,537 Americans conducted by Invisibly between December 4 and 14, 2020 revealed only 53% of Americans indicated they were willing to get the vaccine (47% unlikely).

When considering the buy-in, adoption, or adherence to your company culture, this phenomenon is a great example to use as an analogy to examine how an individual’s personal perceptions and differing values may clash or coincide with your company values or cultural vision. As a business leader seeking to understand why employees are either engaged or disengaged in your company culture, take a journey with us as we leverage this real-time example to present practical approaches for you to ensure the successful implementation and sustainability of your desired company culture.

Your Culture Vaccine.

Cultural Buy-In and Leader Engagement are Linked

How many times have you been asked, “Are you vaccinated”? For some, this question has been raised countless times. Now, consider this question in the context of company culture: Are your employees genuinely bought-in and engaged with your cultural values and practices? Have they taken your Culture Vaccine? Your employees’ answer to this question is a harbinger of your employee turnover rates, engagement survey results, and overall company performance. You may find that your employees’ answers will be split between those who are, those who are unsure, and those who are not bought-in to your company culture yet show up to work every day.

Does this make you uncomfortable or uneasy? It should. Let us explore why.

On January 7th, 2021, Patrick Cawley, Chief Executive Officer of the Medical University of South Carolina Health suggested the hospital’s initial vaccine response rates tracked with studies that show people split roughly into three categories: those who receive the vaccine immediately, those who apply a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, and those who decline the vaccine. In response to over 24 separate studies regarding the general public’s response to the COVID-19 Vaccine, Cawley stated “A third [of the population] take the vaccine right away. They will schedule it almost as soon as they can get it. And then a third [of the population] will not schedule right away. They say they want it, but they do not want to take it right away. They are scheduling [the vaccination] on the end of our scheduling [cycle]. And then you [have] about a third [of the population] who are not going to take it right now. They’re [subsequently] saying absolutely no.”

Ironically, a similar trend is prevalent among leaders and employees within the workplace when it comes to buy-in and adoption of your company culture. An example of data stemming from a wide variety of employee engagement/experience survey studies revealed approximately 33% of US employees report feeling engaged by their leaders, 33% moderately engaged, and 33% completely disengaged. The level of perceived disengagement from the leaders is a direct reflection of their understanding, buy-in, alignment, or ownership of their company’s cultural vision and practices.

You may question – why do we see similarities in these two trends that otherwise seem unrelated? The answer is simple. The factors that have contributed to the general population’s hesitancy to receive the COVID-19 vaccine are related to the factors that have influenced how your leaders and employees understand and respond to your company culture. Let us take a closer look.

Herd Immunity versus a “Herd Culture”:

When leaders attempt to communicate their desired company culture, typically through sharing their vision for how specific values and behaviors [when practiced] will lead to effective engagement and subsequently drive positive business outcomes, most fail to consider the level of understanding, adoption, or buy-in required to perpetuate and sustain this culture. This is the act of achieving a “Herd Culture”. Sound familiar? Consider this concept in relation to vaccinations. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the objective of promoting vaccinations is to achieve “herd immunity” to drive a sustained resistance to the spread of the infectious disease within the population (positive outcomes for all). Dr. Fauci explained, to reach herd immunity, 75% to 85% of the general population will need to get vaccinated.

Imagine achieving a Herd Culture where 75% to 85% of your leaders fully understand and demonstrate the behaviors and interactions comprising your company values. Thus, the culture is then perpetuated through the organization, with every employee.  What would this mean for your business outcomes? The unfortunate reality is this ‘herd immunity’ level of cultural adoption, as exhibited by the level of engagement reported from leaders by employees, is over twice the current level of engagement reported nationally.

When attempting to achieve a “herd culture” let us consider what the experts like Dr. Fauci and others have done to reach a point of herd immunity. It begins with addressing what influences the populations’ hesitancies to receive the vaccination in the first place.

Importance of Communication & Education:

Ownership and adoption of your company culture begin with your leaders. Failure to achieve the level of buy-in to your company culture vision and associated practices often relates to bottlenecks in your approach to communicating this vision and educating your employees to ensure they adopt a clear and aligned understanding of how your company values must be demonstrated through specific behaviors and interactions. In a recent Kaiser survey, 15% of adults who said they would “definitely not” get a COVID-19 vaccine, more than half of the respondents (53%) had not received education beyond high school. Alternatively, those who reported they would get the vaccine “as soon as possible” were most likely to have at least a college degree. Considering the results of this study, how well did advocates of the COVID-19 vaccination provide effective communication and education surrounding the vaccine and its benefits. Some may argue that very little consideration was made regarding the education level of the general population and the validation of their understanding. Thus, hesitant, and reluctant parties increased due to misguided uncertainty.

When sharing your cultural vision and the expectations surrounding how individuals should engage with one another, consider, how is an employee supposed to adhere to your company values when they are not “educated” on the behaviors that produce these values?  The definition and meaning of the company values are often a mystery to employees due to a lack of clarity and ineffective articulation of how to practice the behaviors that exemplify these values. The behaviors managers demonstrate to exhibit values serve as the foundation by which front-line employees will begin to frame how they should behave and interact with one another, hence the importance of promoting education regarding how to effectively practice these behaviors daily.

Mitigating the “Wait and See” Culture:

Some leaders report struggles related to the adoption of their desired culture, even after a strong communication and education strategy has been implemented. This is often related to individuals looking to other influential team members to act on the cultural performance expectations first. We call this the “Wait and See” Culture. The experts we spoke with indicated that most healthcare workers who are reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine immediately are not necessarily refusing it indefinitely. Alison Buttenheim, a faculty member at Penn Nursing and the Perelman School of Medicine, and scientific director for the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics stated “[many nurses] are in a wait-and-see mode: [making statements like] I wouldn’t mind if a few more million people got it before I did”. Despite robust safety and efficacy data, they want to see more real-world proof first.

Relating to the adoption of your company culture, many employees want to see the leadership team as 100% effective in displaying the company values resulting in positive outcomes. Failure to observe the leadership teams’ ownership and accountability to the company culture often created questions of integrity and overall distrust among employees. Employees will never trust and adopt the company values until they see the managers absorb or inject these same values into their own behavioral repertoire.

The History of your Culture Matters:

Some organizations struggle with implementing their desired culture due to a history of counter-productive leadership cultures or contradictory leadership behaviors that existed in the past. While a leadership team’s intent may be driven by a genuine desire to foster a positive workplace culture, the actions of leaders from the past often have everlasting implications on how existing or new employees perceive the organization. This same principle was proven true when considering the adoption of the COVID-19 vaccination, even among healthcare workers. There are historical reasons for health care workers of color to be skeptical about getting an early health intervention.

Approximately 40% of health care workers in the U.S. are people of color. A deep history of institutionalized medical racism exists; meaning people of color have frequently been subjects of unethical experiments or mistreatment in the U.S., often sowing justified mistrust in the medical establishment. Unfortunately, due also to centuries of systemic racism, many of these groups have also been among those most impacted by the pandemic.

Consider how your employee perceives your current-state culture, either through their personal experiences or word-of-mouth, and be prepared to respond with empathy while articulating the actions taken to counter those perceptions.

Furthermore, as the workforce has become more diversified, leaders must build a strong cultural consciousness regarding various groups from different personal and professional backgrounds who may have differing perceptions and expectations regarding specific management behaviors.  The action of building and displaying behaviors associated with company values, such as Trust, Integrity, Equity, Inclusion, etc., may differ between these groups. Therefore, leaders will have to work to establish a common language surrounding their company culture. This will ensure leaders and employees can align on expectations and increase effective communications, all requirements for effective employee engagement.

When companies espouse their Values and display them to the world for everyone to see, they are telling all stakeholders that “this is who we are, this is how we operate, and this is what you should expect and experience when working with us. They are being prescriptive. They are showing you their cultural DNA. Leaders must ask themselves, “Are these companies serious or not?  Is it therefore acceptable to have leaders and managers who do not behave with 100% alignment to the behaviors that exhibit the company Values?  If you answer ‘no’ to the second question, then you have real cultural integrity. Remember, you promote what you permit.

 

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