The gap between leaders and employees is growing ever wider, according to multiple surveys conducted around the world.

54% of employees say they’re overworked, according to the Microsoft Work Trend Index, a global survey of 31,000 people, published on 21 March. 39% of the same group say they’re exhausted, and 41% are contemplating a new job.

The same can’t be said for the executive suite, however. According to the same study, 61% of leaders say they’re thriving, report building stronger relationships, earning higher incomes, and taking “all or more of allotted vacation days.”

“Leaders are out of touch,” said Microsoft Vice President Jared Spataro, in a story by Bloomberg titled, “Bosses Are Clueless That Workers Are Miserable and Looking to Leave.” “Sixty-one percent say they are thriving — that’s 23% higher than the average worker, so there is a disconnect there. They’re like ‘this is great!’”

Worryingly, HR leaders are just as likely to be out of synch with employees, a study of 1,600 employees and HR leaders across England by Westfield Heath found.

  • 35% of employees said that mental and physical wellbeing across their team was ‘not good’ or ‘not good at all’. However, HR representatives responding to the same question had a much different view, saying just 7% of employees were struggling with their mental and physical wellbeing.
  • HR pros polled also pegged employee morale as being much better than the corresponding answers from employees – 41% of HR leaders indicated morale was “very good,” as opposed to employees, just 17% of which agreed.

What’s behind the disconnect

As surprising as these numbers are, there’s a relatively simple explanation for this growing disconnect between executives and employees.

“Most leaders have been so focused on mitigating the impacts of the pandemic on their businesses and keeping things going that they have not had a moment to consider what the impact has been on their people,” notes our CEO and founder, Stefan Wissenbach. “Leaders haven’t had to consider this – engagement levels have been at record highs, inspired by the threat posed by a common enemy – the coronavirus.”

A recent article from Gallup sheds more light on the phenomenon, noting two important changes from the norm. First, in 2020, employee engagement and wellbeing – which are normally highly correlated, became disassociated with each other and went in different directions. Individual wellbeing was under enormous pressure throughout the year. Counter to all expectations, however, employee engagement was more than resilient, reaching record highs throughout the summer (something we also observed in Engagement Multiplier’s aggregate data) and ending 2020 at a higher level than 2019.

As Gallup notes, this divergence presents critical implications for workplace leaders in the coming year and is one of the reasons why Engagement Multiplier has been warning leaders about new threats to culture within their organisations.

“Business leaders are about to be hit out of the blue with employee issues they never saw coming,” Stefan commented. “And the tragedy is that this will occur just as businesses are poised for recovery and need all hands on deck.”

Find your organisations’ truth

As Stefan points out, leaders’ misperceptions are a strategic liability. Making decisions based on one’s assumption is as safe as building a house upon quicksand.

To bridge gaps in perception, prevent a collapse of company culture, and make and prevent an exodus, here are four steps leaders should take:

  1. Acceptance. Accept that the divisions in perception described above are likely to exist within your organisation. Even if you think your organisation is perfect, it’s still a good idea to check. It’s better to operate from a position of certainty.
  2. Understand where your team stands and how the pandemic has impacted them – truly. Engagement Multiplier has created a short focused “Culture Check” survey that will enable leaders to swiftly identify issues present within your organisation that are negatively impacting employees. (If you are not an Engagement Multiplier client, you can use this survey at no charge by clicking here.)
  3. Communicate what matters. Share the findings with your team to build trust and accountability.
  4. Act where it will make a real difference. Armed with the truth, you’ll be able to take focused action and resolve the challenges employees are experiencing.

There’s no question pursuing the truth about what employees think and feel requires some courage and bravery on the part of the leadership team. The reward is certainty about the team, their resilience, and the health of the culture. And even if the feedback isn’t ideal, it represents opportunity.

“All feedback represents a source of power,” Stefan notes.”It enables leaders to take one of two actions: either correcting a misunderstanding or taking focused action to rectify the situation and make improvements that will be meaningful to employees.”