Measuring Culture

Corporate Culture – Combining Purpose and Values by Nick Shepherd

In a world where human engagement and commitment are recognized as being strategically critical to organizational success, culture is an area of focus for leaders. An organization’s culture is the “behavioral crucible” which exists within which organizational activity takes place. Attitudes towards each other, customers, and suppliers. Attitudes towards an individual’s commitment to innovation and creativity. As I outline in my recent book “Corporate Culture – Combining Purpose and Values,” a positive culture will enhance these issues while a negative one will detract from them. But a key problem is how do you measure culture?

Employee surveys are often used but the large proportion fall short of useful information, which creates a base upon which positive change can be made. All too often this is made worse by slow responses to issues that employees raise and an inconsistent approach to improvement. While surveys can help there is one tool that provides meaningful insight into what is really happening. The challenge in seeking to understand culture starts with the complexity of human behavior. Most relationship research appears to have been done in the area of marriage and family counselling, but this can also be used as a starting point.

A large portion of personal relationships fail – often cited as 50% or more. Part of this can be explained by understanding what happens between the overwhelming desire to develop the relationship and the events that subsequently unfold that makes things bad enough that a person wants nothing more than to end the relationship. What happened? Often it is the “Wizard of Oz” syndrome; once the partners really get to know each other they realize that there are some areas of difference and disagreement. In private relationships it is said that “true love conquers all” and this is probably the point at which people get to realize whether they are REALLY in love and have the mutual ability to communicate, collaborate and cooperate to discuss and resolve the issues that arise.

This aspect of “true love” might work in an employment environment where the person can separate their working environment and their relationships from the core work that they do. They might so LOVE their work that everything else is of no importance – but this does not happen often. So, if love is not the saving grace in an employment situation what is? It can be partly love but not in the marriage sense of the word. It is probably more a willingness to accept the imperfection of humans and a willingness to try and – once again, use communication, collaboration, and cooperation to address and resolve issues. But this requires an organization to have a culture in place that allows this to take place, and this is the role of leadership and the underpinning of an effective culture.

Like personal relationships, both employer and employee usually enter the relationship with expectations of success. The employee does their research and this, combined with the interview process provides some level of assurance that this can be an “employer of choice.” Likewise, the (responsible) employer does their research and decides the candidate would be a “good fit” for the position available within their organization. But, like personal relationships, when they start to live together, they each realize that the other is not perfect, and that some things are causing problems and frustrations. A culture that creates an environment for this to be “worked out” to mutual satisfaction has benefits. It reduces turnover, reduces internal conflict, and helps build relationships. Through this it helps retain the knowledge base that builds the loner an employee remains with an organization. So, what is good measure as to how well this is being done? What is needed is a “health” measure not an outcome one such as turnover – by then it is too late.

A good approach might be called the “jade indicator.” Being jaded is defined as being “…made dull, apathetic, or cynical by experience or by having or seeing too much of something.” (Merriam-Webster). An organization that fails to create a positive culture will over time end up with a jaded work force. Two things need to be explored to assess the level of “jadedness” in an organization and hence the health of the culture. First some pretty standard questions about organizational commitment to areas such as communications, cooperation, and collaboration; but added to this will be questions about trust, integrity, fairness, openness, ethical behaviour, consistency, and other, broader based issues. Finally, if the organization has created a set of organization values that should be guiding behavior, questions need to be asked around these.

Secondly, and more importantly the responses must be sorted by length of service. It would be expected that most “new hires” would still retain a high level of positive responses to the organization’s behavioral traits, but as the employee begins to experience more about how the organization actually works their attitudes will tend to change. What is critical is to observe whether the employees do begin to see the problems and issues in the relation BUT they also demonstrate a belief that the organization behaves in such a way that it is honestly trying to address and resolve relationship issues.

Corporate culture must operate within the reality of human behavior; this means that as relationships develop, problems and issues become more apparent. A positive culture will demonstrate that employees see this approach and are feeling positive about the organizations willingness to listen, solve problems and improve. The opposite result will indicate a culture where relationship problems are not well addressed which inevitably leads to higher turnover, lower morale and motivation and an attitudinal virus” that will gradually spread throughout the whole workforce.

Nick Shepherd is on the Maturity Institute Council

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