Assess your organizational culture by asking the kinds of questions an outside consultant would ask
Eileen Hogan, M.S., Ed.S.
Assistant Vice President
Too often, leaders view the culture of their organization through only their own eyes. Not surprisingly, what they see is usually consistent with what they believe the culture is, what they want it to be and what is portrayed in their annual reports. But let’s be real: A leader’s experience of a company’s culture is often markedly different than a downstream employee’s experience at the very same organization.
Definitions of organizational culture vary, as this Harvard Business Review article (opens in a new tab) notes, but at The BB&T Leadership Institute we describe organizational culture as being the assumptions, beliefs, behaviors and values that create an organization’s unique psychological and social environment.
A more effective way for leaders to understand the culture of their organization is to view it from the perspective of others. This means going downstream in the company and getting employees’ views. Doing so requires a leader to ask questions, listen and examine what people say and do, so the leader can understand the assumptions and beliefs that drive employee behavior.
Ask questions to assess your organizational culture
I’ve discovered during my 20 years as a consultant that many times business leaders may describe one culture, but the actual culture is significantly different. When I ask employees – not leaders – for insights about a company’s organizational culture, some of my favorite questions are nonchallenging, fun-to-answer ones like these:
- What three words describe the culture here?
- What is one thing you would like to see change in the culture here?
- What is one thing you hope will never change about the culture here?
To dig deeper into the living culture of an organization, leaders can conduct more-thorough interviews or use pulse surveys to gain insights on touchy issues like these:
- How does our culture support our vision?
- What is holding us back?
- What truly gets leaders' attention?
- What do employees get rewarded for doing?
- What happens when people step out of their lanes?
- Who is excused from following the rules?
- What are the unwritten rules?
- What are the off-limits topics employees don’t feel safe discussing?
The answers to these probing questions can provide leaders with meaningful and actionable insights about the organizational culture – as long as employees trust that their candid answers won’t get them into trouble.
Gather and analyze employees’ responses
Imagine if you asked employees from all levels of your organization these (and other) questions and analyzed their responses. You could gain a deep sense of organizational culture and how successfully you are communicating your vision of an ideal culture throughout the entire team. You could understand any gap you discovered between your experience of the existing culture and the experience of others.
When there is a sizeable gap, it's critical leaders don’t make employees feel uncomfortable about not being aligned with the leadership-espoused culture. There are understandable reasons behind employees’ choices in the workplace, and these reasons are often related to their experiences in the organization. I recommend leaders try to understand why employees are making the choices they're making, why they perceive things the way they do and what data supports their beliefs and behavior.
Improving organizational culture is a team effort
Once you have a grip on the extent of any gap between leadership experience and employee experience, you can start to transform the culture.
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is thinking they can manage company culture by themselves. It’s important to involve others, especially downstream employees. Because of leaders’ self-limiting beliefs and because their efforts are, by nature, limited, they cannot effectively tackle culture change. That’s why top-down attempts to change company culture usually don’t succeed. A team effort is required.
Sustaining organizational culture is an ongoing effort
One last nugget of advice: Remember culture is a living, breathing thing. It requires your constant attention. Organizational culture is not something to address just during annual meetings, performance reviews or the onboarding of new team members. You must actively manage your culture because your culture helps determine the fate of your organization. And to manage it, you must first learn what type of organizational culture you actually have.
A BB&T Leadership Institute program that addresses issues discussed in this article is Mastering Organizational Dynamics™, a three-day program that helps CEOs, executives and managers understand how to build a high-performance culture.
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