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How the Heck Do I Measure Culture?

To manage culture, you need to define where you are and where you want to be, identify key behavioral changes that will support your desired state, and then figure out how to monitor and measure these changes. It’s not easy, but fortunately, there are several resources that can help you accomplish this.

What is culture?

Get two or more people together and you may have trouble coming up with a clear definition of culture. Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge say culture is “...the assumptions, beliefs, values, customs, and behaviors of the organization's employees, supervisors, and leaders. In other words, culture is ‘the way we do things around here.’”Simply stated, culture is a set of repeatable behaviors that people do at work. Underlying the behaviors, of course, are assumptions, beliefs, values, and customs.

Organizations have multiple cultures

Within organizations, subgroups like business units, departments, and assigned teams have unique cultures. Ad hoc teams, such as cross-functional project teams, have temporary cultures while they exist. Even friendships have unique cultures.

Cultures can be healthy or weak

In healthy work cultures, members need to have shared repeatable behaviors. For teams, these behaviors might include

• openly discussing conflicts or challenges at team meetings
• having the ability to consistently explain to others their team’s purpose and values
• meeting punctuality
• helping other teammates with tasks
• celebrating team accomplishment
• sharing personal stories to help other teammates understand their diverse culture.

If you could create a scatter diagram of the repeatable team behaviors over time, you’d get an idea of the team’s cultural strength. Teams with frequently shared behaviors appear homogeneous. Teams that infrequently share repeatable behaviors appear heterogeneous.

Group cultures can be positive or negative

Not all strong cultures are positive. A team that has a strong but negative culture might have behaviors that result in

• unresolved team conflicts 
• unrealized team mission and purpose
• mistrust among team members and leaders
• inappropriate communication
• unproductive team meetings.

Prolonged negativity can lead to the kind of toxicity that damages both employee and organizational performance.

Cultures can also be either positive or negative among unique business units in the same company. For example, I recently observed three distinct team cultures in one department:

• The team responsible for supporting frontline workers was unhappy, stressed, and divided. 
• The team supporting the corporate office, however, had a strong bond and seemed happy. 
• The team that supported training delivery not only seemed happy together, but their high motivation and drive for excellence had a contagious effect on others.

Variables that affect culture

In 2013 State of the Global Workplace, Gallup reports that employees perceive that their primary manager influences about 70 percent of their engagement and coworkers influence the remaining 30 percent. While managers have a strong influence upon a team’s culture, there are many variables that influence culture. Here are a few examples:

• Organizational structure and design. Includes the type of business (such as public, private, corporation, or firm).
• Organizational processes. Includes incentives, rewards, performance management, and training programs.
• Organizational values, mindsets. Includes beliefs about the brand, leadership approach, and purpose clarity.
• People. Includes relationships with peers, subordinates, and contractors.
• Organizational demographics. Includes the size, number of locations, and physical structures.
• Things external to the organization. Includes customers, investors, competitors, and regulations.

Monitoring and measuring organizational culture

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How often do teams ask themselves what their culture is? If you’ve had workplace experiences like mine, the answer is hardly ever. Yet, as culture gains more traction as a driver of employee engagement, senior executives and human resource business partners are having more frequent conversations about monitoring and measuring culture.

While there are many approaches for assessing your organization’s cultural health, here’s a three-step process for measuring how employee and team behaviors can support a desired culture.

Step 1: Define objectives. First, define the behaviors needed to support the business objectives of your desired culture. For example, increased regulations could serve as a driver for a more adaptive, agile culture. Identifying the gaps between current and desired adaptive behaviors is a good place to start defining behavioral objectives. Defining the business case for change helps promote adoption. Remember, new and heightened pressures to be more agile or adaptive may initially cause a performance dip in individual and team performance during a culture shift. 

Step 2: Identify key behaviors. In Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, authors Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, and David Maxfield write about the need to determine key behaviors that enable organizations to meet their objectives. In Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership, I summarize these tactics:

Tactic Explanation
Find the obvious Determine the obvious behaviors that people should be doing but seldom do (common sense that commonly isn’t practiced).
Research what experts believe behaviors should be.
Find crucial moments Find failure modes. Example: At a restaurant after the lunch rush is over, a bus full of tourists shows up. The staff is unprepared to serve that many and start making poor choices that normally wouldn’t occur.
Expose triggers: What causes failure modes? With the restaurant example, it’s not having a plan in place for what staff must do differently when they are unprepared to handle a large number of patrons at one time.
Learn from exemplar performers Find those who succeed when others don’t.
Have standard performers observe exemplar performers. Have exemplar performers observe standard performers. Diagnose the current and desired key behaviors.
Find behaviors that enforce the code of silence Find behaviors that people are punished for discussing openly. “Unhealthy behaviors continue for years within organizations because confronting them openly just isn’t done.” Collect stories that reveal cultural norms.


Step 3: Replace bad behaviors with new key behaviors. In this step, you either introduce new key behaviors or work to replace bad ones. You don’t want to change every behavior, just key ones. This leads to a cascading effect upon other behaviors.

What to do next

When you’re included in cultural conversations, help others clarify what culture means to them. They may think that the organization has one culture, so use this opportunity to explain that all organizations have multiple cultures—from teams to business units.

When others want to change the overall culture, you might suggest taking a top-down as well as a bottom-up approach. Many believe that culture change starts with senior-level executives building their own alignment, but helping teams with cultural alignment can improve productivity and have a cascading affect.

If you’re asked to help with cultural alignment, start by setting goals, then identify key behaviors needed, and finally replace bad behaviors with key ones.

While this is a high-level summary of what you can do to measure and manage the repeatable behaviors associated with organizational culture, I’ve provided the following references. The resources should help you move forward.

References

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.

DePaul, Gary. Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership: A Guide to Inspire Creativity, Innovation, and Engagement. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2015.

Gallup. "State of the Global Workplace Report." gallup.com/services/178517/state-global-workplace.aspx (accessed September 19, 2017).

Grenny, Joseph, Kerry Patterson, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzer. Influencers: The New Science of Leading Change, 2nd edn. New York: McGraw Hill Education, 2013.

Ken Blanchard, Ken and Garry Ridge. Helping People Win at Work: A business Philosophy Called "Don't Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A." Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009.

© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

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About the Author
Gary A. DePaul works with organizations to align their cultures and prepare management to meet the future—and even current—needs of the organization. He has two decades of experience as a scholar of management and has worked as a manager in Fortune 500 companies. He is the author of Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership: A Guide to Inspiring Creativity, Innovation and Engagement, published by CRC Press.
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