Do you really know what drives your team members?


As a leader, you might think you are on pulse on what is going on in the hearts and minds of your employees. This is where you get wrong. Especially if you base your thinking on questionnaires and intuition.  

Far too often, leaders rely on superficial methods when it comes to understanding their organization’s culture. That is because questionnaires give only a narrow and pre-frameworked understanding of cultural issues. As a leader, the behavior you see in people is often biased by how people want to be seen and perceived, without revealing the negative and difficult emotions. Still, questionnaires and intuition are the typical go-to approaches for most leaders. Downside is that these methods keep the influence of organizational culture obscure, and culture is a topic of which it is difficult to get a grip on. It’s no wonder why driving cultural changes is so difficult for leaders. 



Luckily, there is another, more concrete way to understand organizational culture. Quite paradoxically qualitative, not quantitative data can help leaders to get more concrete outcomes. However, it requires in-depth exploration of the everyday experience of the organizational members. By interviewing team members and understanding their everyday experience of work, leaders can get in-depth understanding on how organizational practices and structures they have built over time, are experienced by the members when they get repeated every day. When you truly get to the minds and hearts of your employees, you know which levers to pull and which caveats to avoid when building a stronger culture. 



In one of our client companies in technology sector, one unit was not meeting its profitability target, and people were falling behind their own performance targets. Management’s presumption was that stricter performance follow up was needed. 

Our solution was to diagnose the organization’s culture. As we interviewed people from a unit that was having most challenges with this issue, they reported the unit was “led by fear,” referring to their experiences related to the performance metrics that “the performance metrics were irrational,” “difficult issues could not be talked about with the managers,” and that “senior management did not trust the employees but their work was micromanaged.” By understanding the root-causes why employees were failing to meet the targets, we were able to communicate to the unit leaders that the organizational members felt that they could not influence the results with their own actions, and for that reason they did not understand why certain performance metrics were used.  

This lack of understanding together with emerging feeling of fear and uncertainty threatened the employees’ sense of autonomy. However, at the same time other leadership practices highlighted the importance of autonomy. Hence, there was a mismatch between leadership practices and performance metrics.  

These findings were not what the management had expected and first they were hard to swallow. However, once the leaders understood this mismatch and the psychological mechanism hindering performance, they were able to change measurement practices and create a culture where people felt more motivated and autonomous to perform at their best. 



For you as a leader, we suggest that listening and understanding employees’ experiences is not only humane management but also ethical management leading to measurable outcomes. If you want to create change in the organization, but you do not understand how people actually feel, and why they feel in the certain way, there is no point in waiting for the change to happen as expected. Your well-intended cultural interventions may even back-fire. 


Download the full article with more insightful real-life examples from this link. Article is available in Finnish language.  

This article is originally published in Työn Tuuli -magazine 2/2022. This magazine is published by HENRY – Finnish Association for Human Resource Management. Full magazine concerning “Ethical Leadership in Turbulent World” can be read here.  

Suvi-Tuuli Vuori is the organisation and culture expert at August. She is currently finalizing her doctoral work at Aalto University, which concerns humanity in high-performing organizations. Her research work has won the best paper awards in leading international conferences of strategy, management, and organization research (Strategic Management Society in 2021 and Academy of Management in 2022)