Ethan Burris — Measuring & Benchmarking Employees’ Voice, Innovation/Creativity, and Diversity & Inclusion

By Ethan Burris, Professor of Management and the Chevron Centennial Fellow at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin

Chances are, at one point in your career, you’ve been a part of a great culture…and part of one that left you dragging at the end of the day. It is a fairly easy exercise for most people to think of examples that contrast what makes for a great culture from one that is draining, divisive or toxic. Yet, after teaching hundreds of classes, and thousands of students, what I’ve found a much more difficult question for people to answer is how to change a culture into something great. That is, take a place that is problematic…or even functional…and turn it into something where people thrive.

The stakes are high in answering that question. From consulting and polling agencies, like Gallup and Deloitte, to detailed academic studies with thousands of companies, cultivating a culture where employees encouraged to bring the best version of themselves to the job has been found to lead to significantly higher employee engagement, reduced turnover, increased discretionary effort, and ultimately performance.

There are millions of dollars on the table for companies that can construct the conditions for employee interactions to blossom into creativity, diligence and adaptive performance.

This has been my passion for the last 15 years. As a business school professor, I work with companies to help them pursue and capture their employees’ enthusiasm and insight. Moreover, as an academic who publishes research, I also document these efforts in a way that can be shared more broadly with students, executives and other organizations.

For example, I previously worked with a national restaurant chain. Initially, the company approached my colleagues and me to help them understand the main drivers of turnover. After all, their stores had averaged about 180% in annualized turnover. Ouch. My colleagues and I designed a survey that went out to employees. And the surprising thing we found was that, by and large, their employees were engaged. It simply wasn’t the case that they hired the wrong people, or that their salaries were the main reason people were checked out and leaving (they were competitive). Many stores had employees who reported they voluntarily spoke up with ideas for improvement. Not only did they respond to the survey to say that…they actually wrote down ideas in the open-ended comments section of the survey. Thousands of them.

Yet…not all store managers displayed signals that they were open to these ideas from below. Some felt they didn’t have the resources from corporate to adequately address the issues that were bubbling up. Others just simply did not look for reasons to change the way things had always been done. And these attitudes and behaviors killed any semblance of a productive culture.

In stores where engaged employees met a culture where little action was taken, they tended to leave the company much more often. To the tune of 30% more attrition. In stores with more responsive cultures, turnover was reduced by 25%. Put those together, using fairly conservative estimates, the company was missing out on $8–10M per year.

Together with Culturati and the Center for Leadership and Ethics that I run at the McCombs School of Business at UT-Austin, we are launching several research programs aimed at better understanding organizational culture and how to set the conditions for employees to thrive and feel that they are valued. identifying the best practices and which of those practices are most effective can be challenging, especially across global, complex and matrixed organizations. Having access to independently, compiled, real data can be advantageous in enabling the type of strategic analysis that can catalyze critical change. The goal is to develop long-term partnerships between organizations and academia that will lead to deep, yet practical insights to help companies understand three areas critical for success:

  1. Giving Voice
  2. Innovation/Creativity
  3. Diversity and Inclusion

Giving Voice

Despite best efforts in creating a workplace culture that is encouraging, positive, and adaptive, many employees simply don’t feel safe to express themselves, challenge existing practices, and speak up with ideas for improvements. While most senior HR leaders agree that employee proactivity and well-being can be a critical differentiator to an effective talent management strategy, companies often fall short in curating a culture where employees feel they can make a difference.

Innovation and Creativity

Asserting that innovation is a valued part of the organization is relatively easy to say. But, when someone challenges convention in the company or attempts to practice the art of disruption, it can come off as…well…disruptive. Organizations increasingly want novel, original solutions, yet understanding how leaders create a culture that balances such radicalism that can generate innovative solutions with the practicalities of executing against current demands is challenging.

Diversity and Inclusion

There is no topic today that generates as much discomfort and as much potential as diversity. The evidence is clear that having a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, race, gender, personalities and orient0ation to thinking about the world increases the capacity for success. Diverse populations represent different markets for products and services being sold. They also improve organizational functioning by having access to unique perspectives that provide creative solutions. Yet, in order to access that potential, organizations must create an environment marked by inclusion. No one is going to give it their all, if they don’t feel their all is truly welcome.

We are actively seeking organizations interested in these topics to partner with us and an academic to answer some of these important questions. And the answers go beyond a set of best practices. They not only get access to independently compiled, real data on their culture, but they have access to a new type of community. One that is marked by a shared sense of purpose for discovering the concrete behaviors — the actions — that lead to a highly functioning culture. As a result, organizations not only acquire knowledge from their own experiences, but can evolve their practices based on the learnings of others. Moreover, they can contribute to the scientific community that can be publicized more broadly.

The mission of the Center for Leadership and Ethics that I run is create a set of research and educational programs so that every student, corporate partner and leader has an improved capacity to lead — to craft their unique voice to create happier, healthier, and more productive work environments. Together with Culturati and a set of partnering organizations, we can uncover the foundations for building better cultures.

Ethan Burris

Dr. Ethan Burris is a Professor of Management and the Chevron Centennial Fellow at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the Director of the Center of Leadership Excellence for the McCombs School. He earned his PhD in Management from Cornell University, and has served as a Visiting Scholar at Google and Microsoft. He teaches and consults on topics relating to leadership, managing power and politics, leading groups and teams, and negotiations. The recipient of numerous teaching awards, Dr. Burris was named to the “Faculty Honor Roll” in 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013, received the Hank & Mary Harkins Foundation Award for Effective Teaching in Undergraduate Classes in 2012, the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award in 2011, the ING Professor of Excellence award in 2011, and the 2009 Trammell/CBA Foundation Teaching Award for Assistant Professors.

Dr. Burris’ current research focuses on understanding 1) the antecedents and consequences of employees speaking up or staying silent in organizations, 2) leadership behaviors, processes and outcomes, and 3) the effective management of conflict generated by multiple interests and perspectives. In particular, he has investigated how leaders shape employees decisions whether to speak up or stay silent, and how leaders evaluate those who speak up. His research has appeared in several top management and psychology journals, such as Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and has been covered in major media outlets such as the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Houston Chronicle.

Dr. Burris has collected data from and served as a consultant for a variety of professional firms, ranging from a Fortune 100 insurance company, a Fortune 500 company in the casual dining industry, several financial services organizations, a defense contracting company, a commercial real estate firm, governmental agencies, and retail organizations.




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Culturati is a community of CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors and other c-suite leaders who practice & study culture building and share our play books.

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