How to Inspire Strong Culture, Squad or Not

If you’re routinely reading this blog, you’ve probably already realized a strong culture can impact company performance. In fact, Novarete wouldn’t exist if this weren’t true, and we have ample data to back up our claims that infusing your company’s core values into the daily activities of employees can have measurable, positive result related to financial performance, employee satisfaction, and customer service.

Most research is based on traditional work environments, such as offices or manufacturing facilities; both of which heavily rely on interdependent employee-to-employee and employee-to-manager relationships. But can an organization get similar benefits when its employees operate in a much more independent environment, such as an environment with long solo hours, limited human interaction, and “lone wolf” style teams? An environment such as that of the truck driving industry?

When establishing scientific claims, it’s important to look at the data through several different lenses. These varying lenses allow us to further understand culture’s impact on employee engagement. And as the researchers behind the 2015 Applied Ergonomics study “Beyond safety outcomes” argue, if culture impacts employees in a solo environment, it almost certainly affects employees in an environment highly dependent on inter-organizational relationships.

Social Exchange Theory: Using corporate culture to drive employee engagement

Social Exchange Theory, developed in the 1950s, is a framework sociologists use to examine person-to-person interactions. Essentially, it says people look at exchanges through a cost-benefit lens, evaluating whether or not any given transaction is worth the effort. It’s why rule No. 1 of negotiating is to describe the “what’s in it for me” value of your proposition. If you can’t convince someone else that a partnership will be mutually beneficial, they won’t be interested in an agreement.

The theory also predicts that people will reciprocate levels of effort or value. In other words, if leaders work hard to deliver value to employees, these employees will work similarly hard to deliver value to the company. If leaders relate to employees in an open and honest way, employees will do the same. Conversely, if a leader approaches relationships by keeping a hidden agenda, employees will also hide their own goals and become distrustful.

The Study: Does social exchange theory apply to the truck-driving industry

Last year, researchers from the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety in Massachusetts sought to examine the social exchange theory as it relates to employees in the truck-driving industry, an industry known for high job turnover rates and low employee satisfaction. More importantly, truck driving is a solo sport: There are no “teams,” and aside from logistics, there is very little collaborative work. It’s not an industry heavily reliant on relationships.

At first glance, the social exchange theory doesn’t seem to apply to this situation. However, the researchers concluded that if they could show trends in this highly-independent culture, they could make the case that the results would be even more significant in more traditional job environments, which are highly dependent on relationships.

The researchers examined survey data from more than 6,200 truck drivers and compared it to employee satisfaction, job turnover rates, and “safety culture” variables, which include:

  • Safety climate, a measure of the degree to which safety is perceived by employees to be a priority in their company. Example items included: “My company uses any available information to improve existing safety rules (organization-level safety climate subscale)” and “My supervisor compliments employees who pay special attention to safety (group-level safety climate subscale).”
  • Employee engagement, a measure of the degree to which employees were devoted to their work. An example question is “To me, truck driving is interesting and challenging.”
  • Company tenure, which was calculated using employment start and end dates at each company.

Admittedly, the researchers were examining safety climate perceptions and not, actual managerial commitment to safety. However, many previous studies have indicated these two are mutually exclusive: Safety climate perceptions are strongly correlated with things such as

  • High rank and status of safety officers;
  • Emphasis being placed on safety training;
  • Open communication between management and workers;
  • Frequent safety inspections;
  • Good housekeeping and environmental control;
  • A stable workforce; and
  • Promotion and recognizing of safety.

The researchers argue (I believe convincingly) it’s highly unlikely employees would have a low perception of safety climate if management were not actually committed to creating and maintaining this environment. In other words, culture is created by management establishing, communicating and ensuring compliance to company values.

In the truck driving study, the researchers wanted to know if this culture impacted HR goals, and thus sought to answer the question “Does a company that places high importance on employee safety manage to reduce employee turnover and improve job satisfaction?” This question could be rephrased to ask “Does a company with strong values, particularly as they relate to employee safety, boost employee engagement?”

Conclusion: Strong perceptions of company values boost employee engagement

After analyzing their data, the researchers were able to conclude with a resounding “Yes,” that trucking companies that placed high importance on safety — and made sure that importance was communicated to the employees — experienced greater levels of employee job satisfaction, greater levels of employee engagement, and lower job turnover rates.

As I mentioned above, this study is notable because it examines the truck driving industry, an industry reliant on autonomous, independent workers who engage little with each other and with their managers. Nevertheless, companies with a strong safety culture enjoyed better employee engagement outcomes. I believe this relationship is likely stronger in a more “typical” company, in which interdependent relationships are all the more important to company success.

Even in the “lone wolf” environment of the truck driving industry, company culture matters. You can’t avoid the implication of this kind of study and resort to traditional means of motivating employees, such as higher pay. Culture matters, so begin building a strong culture today.

Want to continue learning how to build a stronger culture in your company?