How Employee Experiences Drive Organizational Behavior

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the key to a consistent and differentiated customer experience is a set of deliberately designed employee experiences.  The experience that customers have with most businesses is the product of very complex organizational behavior.  The experience that employees have within the organization is the driver of that behavior.  In addition, the nature of employee experiences has a profound impact on the organizational agility required to make improvements to the customer experience.  This post will explore the connection between employee experience and organizational behavior.  But, first things first…

What is an employee experience?

I believe the most productive way to define “employee experience” is as something that resides with the employee rather than being a characteristic of the organization.  Its how the employee “experiences” things rather than what the organization does that is most important.

The working definition of employee experience we’ve been using is as follows:

The employee experience is how employees react rationally and emotionally… to the how their organizational and external environments… enable them to achieve goals and satisfy needs that are important to them.

I consider this a working definition since I’m sure we’ll end up tweaking it as we continue to learn.  However, there are three things that have made this definition productive in our employee experience design work:

  1. The context for an individual’s experience starts with what they are trying to accomplish; what’s important to them.  We’ve found that different employees tend to have significantly different “experiences” of the same set of organizational conditions dependent on their goals and needs.  As a result, what an organization does to create effective employee experiences cannot be “one size fits all.”
  2. An employee’s experience is influenced not only by what happens within the organizational environment but also by external factors like the economy, the job market, world events, etc…  Although these factors are outside of the control of leaders within the organization, they cannot be ignored because they have a significant effect on employee’s moods, priorities, and behavior.
  3. In addition to the individual goals described above, employees have rational and emotional reactions that are driven by an underlying set of beliefs and temperaments which can be characterized by different “employee personae.”  For example, BSG Concours’ research has shown that an employee that can be described as a “self empowered innovator” will have a fundamentally different experience of the same situation than an employee that can be described as a “fair and square traditionalist.”

In the end, all of this becomes strategically relevant when employees’ rational and emotional reactions produce behavior that either enables or gets in the way of the organization working together to deliver a customer experience that allows them to win in the marketplace.  Organizational behavior generated by employee experiences can be described at two levels:  Operating State and Unwritten Rules.

Employee Experience and the Operating State of the Organization

Operating State is a way of diagnosing and describing how people work together.  It has a profound impact on the agility that any workgroup or organization has in the face of changing business needs.  Based on work done with CSC Index and DiBianca Berkman, Operating State describes how people relate around four things:  Power, Identity, Contention, and Learning.  As you read these, I’m sure they’ll resonate with experiences you’ve had in organizations that you’ve been part of.

  • Power. Do people have the power to accomplish what is important to the organization and to themselves? The state of power within any organization can range from Possibility to Resignation.
    • Possibility. At one end of the spectrum, some organizations seem to be unstoppable. Employees have experience which encourage them to be ambitious, resourceful, to take risks, and to accept accountability.
    • Resignation. On the other hand, many organization seem be in stuck. Employees experience the organization as an immovable object. As a result, they are can be highly frustrated, easily stopped, and, as a result, avoid risks and accountability.
  • Contention. How do people deal with disagreement or misalignment? In some ways, this is the most critical element of how people work together in a changing business world. Contention within an organization can range from Safety and Resolution to Fear and Suppression.
    • Safety and Resolution. Ideally the experience that employees have within the organization encourages them to surface and address differences of opinion ; to safely challenge the status quo or prevailing thinking. The experience reinforces “straight talk” rather than submerged disagreement.
    • Fear and Suppression. Alternatively, many organizations have a hard time with conflict. People avoid saying “what’s so” for fear of being seen as “not on board” or “not a team player.” Many times there are subtle “kill the messenger” reactions that lead to distrust and issues that become undiscussable.
  • Identity. Do people identify with the mission and the commitment of the organization as a whole or do they identify more narrowly with their function or department? The state of identity within an organization can range between connectedness to separateness.
    • Connectedness. When an organization is operating from the state of connectedness, holistic thinking prevails. People work hard to optimize the performance of the organization as a whole rather than just the performance of their function. As a result, it’s possible for the organization to take coordinated action and be responsible for cross-functional and cross-divisional objectives.
    • Separateness. When an organization is operating from a position of separateness, narrow thinking prevails. Employees primarily consider the requirements for success within their function or role. This naturally leads to sub-optimal overall performance. People take independent action that is in many cases misaligned and, as a result, there can be a lot of finger-pointing.
  • Learning. Learning is the way an organization maintains its differentiation. In order to move forward, organizations must be open to learning about the changing needs of their customers, their real strengths and weaknesses versus competitors, and the ways the organization must change in order to continually improve the experience for customers. Commoditization is a by-product of the lack of learning. Learning within organizations can range from Inquisitiveness and Receptivity to Arrogance and Defensiveness.
    • Inquisitiveness and Receptiveness.  Ideally the employee experience reinforces an environment in which people are open to new ideas, look for new possibilities, challenge existing mental models, try new things and learn from their failures.
    • Arrogance and Defensiveness. However, in many organizations, people have a hard time safely challenging the existing thinking. Many times employees trust and follow the “authoritative view” of their superiors. In addition, some organizations reinforce critical thinking that leads employees to “look for the fatal flaw” in the ideas of their colleagues. People are distrustful of ideas that come from outside their group or organization. In many situations its hard for the organization to learn from failures because they have a hard time admitting failure.

As you can probably, tell each of these interconnected components of an organization’s Operating State can have a profound impact on the organizations’ ability to navigate change and improve the quality of the experience customers have.  These Operating State components are strongly reinforced by the experience employees have within the organization.  Based on our work with clients to shift these conditions, it’s first necessary to understand how the employee experience reinforces these components before you can develop meaningful and well-directed interventions.

Employee Experience and the Unwritten Rules that Drive Behavior

Regardless of the formalized policies, processes, and procedures, the actually behavior of people within an organization tends to be driven by a set of unwritten rules that, to employees, seem like the sensible ways to behave.  There are many Unwritten Rules that result from and reinforce the Operating State components described above.  For example, common unwritten rules might include:  “Don’t admit you’ve made a mistake,” “Regardless of the overall mission of the organization, you need to satisfy your boss,” “Don’t disagree with your superiors in public,” “If you question a major program, you won’t be seen as a team player,” etc…The unwritten rules within any organization are unique and have a lot to do with long legacy effects; how the organization has dealt with change in the past and what strategies have worked.

These Unwritten Rules are reinforced by the existing set of employee experiences and have a significant impact on the organizations’ ability to deliver a highly engaging and differentiated customer experience.  As I covered in the post, Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?,  Unwritten Rules are one of the primary reasons why customer experience efforts often don’t produce the desired results.

Every company has Unwritten Rules that are just inconsistent with delivering the kind of customer experience they would intend to deliver.  This ranges from Unwritten Rules like, “The stars are out getting new customers, not serving the existing customers,” “We need to compete against other divisions for the customers’ attention,” “We talk about customers but ultimately you get rewarded for making your numbers,” etc…  The list is potentially endless.

Ultimately, the experience customers have with your business is the product of organizational behavior… that organizational behavior is a product of the Unwritten Rules and Operating State of the organization…. the Unwritten Rules and Operating State are reinforced by the experience that employees are having.

As a result, designing meaningful and relevant improvements in the experience involves the following steps:

  1. Describing the experience you intend to deliver to customers
  2. Identifying the organizational and individual behaviors required to generate that experience
  3. Identifying what current Unwritten Rules and Operating State components must change in order to produce those behaviors
  4. Determining how these Unwritten Rules and Operating State components are reinforced by the employee experience
  5. Designing specific employee experience interventions that address those barriers.

In practice, employee experience interventions can include changing:  target hiring profiles, recruiting practices, new employee incorporation, mentoring, performance management, measurements and rewards, communications, management expectations, executive alignment, etc…  While many of these are things are done today, this more holistic perspective allows you design these interventions in a way that is much more directed and effective.

For a complementary perspective on employee experience, I would encourage you to check out one of my colleagues, Tammy Erickson’s, interesting blog post:

4 Responses

  1. […] Leadership including the aspirations, capabilities, and beliefs of the executives, as well as, the something called the operating state of the organization.  Operating state establishes the context for how the organization works together and includes four dimensions: Power, Identity, Contention, and Learning.   Note:  Operating state is described in more detail in the post:  How Employee Experiences Drives Organizational Behavior? […]

  2. What a great article. I hope you work in the customer experience measurement / management industry.

  3. So, what’s the relation of Employee experience to Customer value and the total Brand experoence..?

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