How to Measure Culture and Prevent “Leadership Malpractice”

In medicine, prescription before diagnosis is considered malpractice.

This seems obvious, as any rational person would be horrified if a doctor prescribed treatment without first taking vitals, asking questions or running tests to determine the problem. This ready-fire-aim approach is presumptuous at best, and criminally negligent at worst.

So, why do we expect a diagnosis to come before the remedy when our personal health is concerned but not necessarily in the case of our organization’s health?

In my research, I’ve discovered that fewer than 30 percent of global organizations use formal methods or instruments to accurately measure the factors that shape culture at work. So, most organizations don’t have empirical ways to measure culture, yet nearly all have policies and programs in place aimed at this most important topic.

In keeping with the medical analogy, these companies are committing “leadership malpractice,” and the victims are the company’s employees. This is an issue I’ve studied and analyzed for some time, and I will be exploring this problem further during TalentWeek, an online event focused on the recruitment, retention and development of top performers.

Data needs to replace “gut” instincts

My conclusions are that too many leaders and managers rely on gut feel or group consensus when addressing culture or confuse culture with employee engagement or satisfaction. Data needs a seat at the table, so to speak.

The use of data in HR and organizational strategy isn’t new, but we need to apply it to culture in a more thoughtful way. My research suggests that fully two-thirds of global organizations use surveys or other empirical instruments to measure employee engagement or satisfaction.

This, however, does not measure culture — it addresses the symptoms rather than the root cause. A culture survey doesn’t simply measure an employee’s mood or attitude as it relates to his or her work, because these factors can be influenced by variables other than culture.

Instead, a culture survey measures how employees perceive the relative strength of the five “predictor” cultures in your organization. These are the:

  1. Can do” culture;
  2. Will do” culture;
  3. Must do” culture,
  4. Individual performance” culture; and,
  5. Team performance” culture.

Is there a “readiness to transform?”

When a company surveys employee perception of these areas, they combine to provide a scorecard against which to grade the health and vibrancy of the organization.

Taking this idea a step further, organizations can flow this information into a dashboard to take the cultural pulse of the organization in near real-time. In keeping with the medical metaphor, taking a consistent “pulse” of the organization’s culture is an excellent way to operationalize the concept of culture assessment.

As cloud and mobile technology have matured, organizations have found ways to measure and dashboard nearly every organizational vital sign. If we can track top-line revenue and operational costs in real-time, why not add the cultural heartbeat to the mix? This can be as simple as running regular pulse surveys and integrating the resulting data into the company’s analytics initiatives.

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With a cultural barometer in place, the next step is to measure the company’s “readiness to transform.” In my experience, I have found a convincing correlation between organizations that have “strong and vibrant” cultures and those that are willing and able to transform.

A company that is capable of transformation is also prone to innovation, agility and responsiveness as it relates to key constituents — all traits of organizations that excel in today’s fast-paced, Darwinian business world.

Jumping into the Age of Data

Again, however, painfully few organizations have gotten empirical about measuring their transformative potential as an extension of culture. Fewer than one in 10 use “readiness” assessments to identify the cultural factors that support or restrain transformation efforts. For most organizations, the blind spots are too many and too elusive to rely on gut feeling or group consensus in matters of culture and transformative potential.

The Age of Data is upon us. Let’s get with the times and start using empirical methods to diagnose our culture before making blind prescriptions.

  • Tim Kuppler

    Excellent post. It is important to note that the vast majority of “culture” measures out there are actually, by definition, climate measures. Outcomes of the true culture may be a “can do”, “must do” or “team performance” climate but it’s critical to understand the underlying cultural expectations or behavioral norms that drive those outcomes. Are there very passive/defensive expectations or “unwritten rules” to always check with your boss, seek approval, always follow the rules, etc.? Are they aggressive/defensive expectations to point out flaws / mistakes, never make a mistake, oppose / question ideas from others, etc.? Constructive expectations lead to the outcomes referenced in this article. We actually want to understand if we are reinforcing these expectations to self-set goals, collaborate with others, show care and concern for others, etc. Understanding climate may be a first step towards understanding the underlying culture but it’s important to understand the difference.