Learn about the atmosphere in your company

publication date 21.03.2010

Social environment of quality makes people feel good

The social environment is sometimes being unjustly marginalized, yet it is a key factor in the company´s success at the same time. The factor determining not only the performance and the effectivity of work alone, but, in particular, the capacity to cope with problems and emergency situations. What does it consist of? How can it be measured? What can be done to effect it? If you wish to learn the above and more, read on.

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A company - but also an organization or an office - represents a community of people who cooperate. But for non-essential exceptions, it holds true that people within this community are not regarded as peers, with each worker holding a certain position in which they play their particular role. They are endowed with responsibility, competence and a mission. The logical result of the above is that a worker has their share in the effectivity of work, but they do not bear the total responsibility. 

There is a social environment in the community and - therefore - also in every company. This term is sometimes mistakenly confused with the company´s corporate culture. In fact, its meaning is completely different. A culture consists of a body of customs, regulations, formal and informal traditions that exist within an organization. The social environment includes the way people feel in an organization. How strong (if any at all) is the psychological bond between them and their company,  how they accept the management and, possibly, what their willingness to stand by the whole of their company to which they belong in both good and bad times is.  

The company´s social environment has been the subject of research by sociologists for a relatively long time. Until recently it has been regarded by the management as a second-rate feature and controlled through interventions into the corporate culture. As for the need to find out about conditions in this sphere and analyze potential problems, it would leave the management rather cold. Only the arrival of the economic downturn along with the necessity to come to terms with troubles caused the issue of how employees "live" in the company to get well-deserved attention. Even companies that could offer a clearly-defined corporate culture, a firmly-established system of positions and roles and a high degree of predictability had to cope with problems in communication with their employees and, in extreme instances, they saw their teams splitting up. These troubles, along with a disregard of the management´s will, the employees´being mistrustful of the management plans, fear and uncertainty at the time of crisis could aggravate the situation of otherwise completely healthy companies

An example: Earlier in 2010, the US President Barack Obama, in the budget draft, suspended a project which was to return humans to the Moon in ten years. It happened mainly due to the fact the project had been lagging behind in preparation and getting unjustifiably overpriced.  Many months earlier, a research conducted amongst the NASA engineers had indicated many of them had no trust in what they were working on. It can be assumed that this disbelief had been reflected in overpricing which had utimately resulted in the cancellation of the entire project. A whole range of examples analogous with the above can be found round about where you live.

The social environment under control? 

Unlike the corporate culture, the social environment is not something that could be defined enumeratively. No employer can order their subordinates to be happy and to believe in whatever work they may do, without making themselves a proper fool. Tho social environment can only be controlled indirectly; however, to be able to control it we need to know and understand it.  

The social environment is a multi-factor phonomenon. It cannot be measured by means of a simple index or (no matter how complex) a variable. Yet it can be deduced from a combination of more variables and factors that converge on a single point - people. There are quite a few of these factors. Nevertheless, some are regarded as the basic ones that constitute clues for the rest. To put it simply, they are the quantified (translated into variables and intelligible scales) answers to the following questions:  

  • Are those in authority really respected by the employees?  
  • Do people have trust in their company as a whole?
  • Are people holding different positions in the company able to stand up for the company and one another?  
  • How do the employees feel about the company´s environment? Is it perceived as predictable? Is it perceived as fair? Is it perceived as friendly?  
  • Do the employees trust their superiors? Do they regard the management as someone who knows how and is able to resolve problems, or do they hold them for someone who lives off their work? 

Each of the above questions, or, in fact,  the answers to the questions, give us a partial idea of what the company´s environment is like. Their diverse combinations and a joint analysis can paint a picture of a particular social environment – and answer a lot more serious questions, such as:  

  • Do the employees give the company all the means they could give it?  
  • Will the employees stand up for their company if troubles arise? 
  • Do the employees really trust their management?  
  • Is their company really of importance to them?  
  • Are they ready to follow the management´s directions in all circumstances?  

An eventual negative answer to any of these questions can mean the company either does not work effectively enough, or, if you like, below the potential level of its people, or if troubles arise, people may behave in such a way as it aggravates the situation even further. No responsible manager can wish for anything like that.  

Blindness of a soldier and an insider  

A certain social scientist (surely not in The Czech Republic) once researched into how people trust state agencies and the police. He did it by distributing questionnaires to police officers who, subsequently, had people they were dealing with in police stations fill those questionnaires. The research resulted in an absolute satisfaction of all the respondents with both the conduct and the work of the police. 

If you assume the result of the above research did not match the reality precisely, then take into consideration the fact that your efforts to measure the social environment within an organization through your own means are bound to have a very similar end. Apart from the fact the employees take an attitude towards the management (in an effort to please them, to meet their expectations , or, conversely, to bring disgrace on them, etc.), the so-called insider effect has a role to play here too. Being a part of the social structure, your perception of the same is inevitably biased. There is another effect called war blindness that is manifesting itself in parallel. Each soldier on the battleground can only see its one part. In order to fully understand the battle, it is essential to get the overall picture of the battleground. Despite of these limitations, there are ways to penetrate your own social environment. Let us have a look at them now.  

How they live here 

If you want to get the picture of your company´s social environment, the best course of action here will be, if you do what is being done by every regular manager  –  which is keeping in touch with the employees. In doing so, you can learn what they think, what the company means to them, and whether it has earned their trust. Nevertheless, these things can only be learned after some time. A one-time „trip“ to the shop floor, for instance, mostly makes the atmosphere only more stressful (Beware! Inspection!), a is unavoidably associated with a steep increase in performance accompanied by a lowering quality of work.  

A very good way of finding out about the mood amongst the workers can be getting an informer who is one of them and, at the same time, provides information about things the management is interested in. However, you have to consider the risk that such an informer may quickly lose the trust of their workmates and win the status of a denouncer or a place-seeker (another derogatory name is commonly being used for them).

There are, nontheless, possibilities of finding out about certain factors of the social environment which are controlled and yet neutral, anonymous employee satisfaction questionnaires to measure people´s satisfaction in the workplace, for instance, or surveys to establish the most popular colleague (they identify informal leaders and outsiders, but can stigmatize), or controlled interviews. Naturally, the possibilities are plentiful here. 

Analysis – and what to do about it? 

The social environment of an organization as defined in the questions put at the beginning of this text can be analyzed, through the means of both the quantitative and qualitative sociology. A method called sociometric is applied to identify informal leaders and relations, the employees´ feelings and the company´s overall atmosphere can be derived from date gathered from personal interviews with workers. Conducting these interviews is a skilled labor. It is appropriate to launch this method, if findings researched by the management alone indicate there is something wrong with the social environment. The output of such analysis includes socio-technical recommendations towards modifications of the corporate culture, or, as the case may be, targeted individual interventions in the event of emergent troubles. The desirable aim here is to achieve the condition when, if possible:  

  • Informal and formal leaders in the company overlap, i.e. the employees trust their management and do not tend to „take refuge“ to leaders that nobody has authorized. 
  • Employees are able and ready to fight for their company. Not because they are ordered to do so, but of their own accord. 
  • In the event of troubles, a crisis, or a threat of bankrupcy, for instance, the employees will unite closely around the company. Even if there is no finacial means to pay out wages, people increase their performance and effectivity in their efforts to save the company, rather than run away.  
  • People feel positively about their organization. They are happy belonging to it and take it as one part of their identity. 

Reaching all these goals to the full satisfaction is quite unlikely, getting anywhere near is, nevertheless, possible. It is prudent to begin working on it when the time of trouble is still far away. Most cultural changes manifest themselves with a time delay and cannot be accurately anticipated.  

Control of the social environment 

The social environment cannot be measured by means of the single-factor variables. There is no telling it is 86 per cent good, for instance. It consists, though, of individual variables transferable to an easily-comprehensible form. These can be tracked in time and monitored as they develop. Because of that, it is possible to establish whether the employees´ trust in the management has improved or not. This parameter can then be related to the effectivity of labor and the company´s overall performance, but also, if necessary, to the error rate of the human factor which has the greatest effect on the social environment. Thus, the process of measuring and improving the social environment of an organization can be monitored, measured and evaluated, even though in a lesser degree than perhaps its gross performance.  

Conclusion - Cultivation

Keeping track and controlling the social environment is a long-distance race, yet one that will pay off. Both in „normal circumstances“ and – mainly – at the time of troubles or in a crisis. Only then it will be apparent what the organization really means to its people.

Vojtěch Bednář

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„Our beliefs and actions form our character on our journey through life.“ more >>

Jiří Střelec Jiří Střelec

That holds true the other way around, too. Taking a think to realize what the implications of our thoughts and actions might be is always worthwhile.