Diamonds are rated. Cultures should be, too.
If only it were that simple, right? Like diamonds, every culture is unique. But you can’t hold a culture in your hand, much less put it under a microscope and examine every nuanced detail the way a gemologist systematically measures the four Cs (carat weight, cut, color and clarity).
You can, however, put together more than enough data points to measure any organizational culture. If you aren’t, your culture will likely end up with all the brilliance and authenticity of cubic zirconia.
Many leaders will tell you that a healthy culture is vital to their organizational success — and, unlike leaders a decade or so ago, they actually mean it. Yet, building and maintaining a healthy culture remains one of the most elusive tasks of a leader, especially given the seismic shakeups to organizational structures that have come with the global pandemic.
Despite their good intentions, companies end up with weak and unstable cultures for one simple reason: They don’t hold their culture to the same standards as they do other areas of their business. Specifically, they don’t hold their culture accountable, because they don’t measure their adherence to cultural norms. A culture without accountability is a culture that can’t be trusted.
Worse yet, a culture without accountability is a culture that’s nearly impossible to improve, because leaders don’t really know what’s wrong with it. As a result, leaders don’t need to measure their cultures only to know where they are; they also need to measure their cultures to gain insights on where to go.
In other words, measuring their culture helps leaders understand what’s happening within their organizations. This year, it helps them understand how people are getting along with each other from a distance, how working from home is impacting them emotionally, how the stress of a challenging financial market is affecting them, which systems and policies are working, and which ones need an update to account for new realities. These types of insights are essential for both tactical and strategic adjustments to improve the health of an organization.
Before a company can measure its culture, of course, it has to establish its cultural norms — the agreed-upon ways everyone is supposed to behave. These norms differ by company, but each organization must clearly define and regularly communicate them. Then, leaders can craft goals and metrics that will enable their team to measure its success and identify gaps where they need to make improvements.
An Ongoing Process
Building and maintaining a healthy culture is really one big training and development process. It’s all about teaching culture, formally and informally, to the people who live it. Therefore, one way to measure success is to look at the process through the lens of Donald Kirkpatrick’s four levels of training evaluation: reaction, learning, behavior and results.
What does that process look like? Well, it means organizations need to gain feedback (reaction) to the stated cultural norms, assess how well people understand what’s expected of them (learning), determine how consistently they are actually living out those norms (behavior) and review how effective those behaviors are at helping the organization succeed (results).
Measuring cultures in this manner is an ongoing process that involves a continuous commitment to four behaviors:
Employee surveys and interviews are nothing new, but more organizations need to adopt the best practices of companies that are taking them to a higher level. Firstly, human resource (HR) teams should conduct regular formal interviews, randomly picking people from throughout the organization to solicit their feedback. They also should conduct robust, formal exit interviews when employees leave and review those interviews internally, perhaps with their board.
Secondly, they should increase the frequency of confidential employee surveys. Once per year is no longer enough. Sending out surveys once each quarter or even once every couple of months to a segment of the employee population sends a message that culture is important and helps track changes in the culture in a timely manner.
Finally, organizations should make it easy for employees to provide in-the-moment information or feedback about their culture with anonymous emails, a phone hotline or dedicated pages on intranet sites. Whichever methods the organization uses, the important thing is to be proactive in continually asking.
The most common ways to educate employees about organizational culture include assessment-based training on cultural values, 360-degree assessments that provide individuals with robust insights about their performance, and team or individual coaching. The key is for the training to connect to the values and skills that support the cultural norms and to include follow up that helps learning and development (L&D) leaders measure the impact of the training on individuals, teams and the business.
Everyone in the organization, not just the leadership team, benefits from knowing what the organization is teaching and measuring and how successfully it is performing toward its cultural goals.
That doesn’t mean someone’s 360-degree assessment results should be published for the world to read. But it does mean making relevant information accessible — not only to employees and managers but to the board and, in some cases, the public. Some companies now set up regular meetings where certain mid-level employees interact with board members. And, companies that are committed to a healthy culture often submit to outside audits and reviews that rank them, for instance, on a “best places to work” list.
At the end of the day, accountability matters. The more an organization shares information, the more the emphasis will be on results.
Recognition is a powerful way of emphasizing the importance of culture, and one way of recognizing people is through rewards. An old-fashioned “Employee of the Month” award is good, but it doesn’t cut it on its own. Organizations should regularly recognize employees for behaviors that are congruent with cultural norms.
For instance, if a company says it values problem-solvers, it should recognize employees for specific ways they have solved problems. If the examples are weak or non-existent, it’s an indication the culture isn’t living up to that standard. Rewards also can come in the form of pay raises, bonuses and promotions. These rewards are tied to formal evaluations that include cultural components in addition to traditional goals.
There are numerous ways to recognize positive cultural performances. The key is to make sure it’s happing — because people respond when leaders show they care.
Organizations that position themselves for success in the years to come will be the ones that are building healthy cultures where people work for leaders they trust.
Like fine diamonds, vibrant cultures don’t happen by accident. They emerge when proactive, authentic leadership nurtures an organization-wide commitment to cultural norms that is backed by accountability. Measuring culture enables leaders to reward what’s pure and improve what’s not, so that everyone in the organization can shine bright — especially when times are tough.