Why we need to stop trying to turn culture into a “number” that you can measure

| April 1, 2020

Have you thought about trying to measure your relationship with your significant other by giving it a score and then assigning improvement as a KPI? Do you think that would work? We are not crazy enough to take an “efficient” approach in personal relationships so why do we think it will be effective in work relationships? If COVID-19 has taught leaders anything, it’s that culture truly matters.

Culture is the attitudes and behaviours people adopt to fit in with the expectations of the people around them. Attitudes and behaviours are influenced by things like relationships, leadership (which is a relationship), communication (which is impacted by the quality of the relationship), vision and strategy (which are impacted by communication and leadership), performance and mood (which are also impacted by communication and leadership). As a result, culture, or attitudes and behaviours, are relationship based.

Trying to capture relationships with a survey that provides a measure might be efficient but it’s rarely effective, in fact it will often make life harder. Think about it this way, would the attitude and behaviour of your partner towards your relationship improve if you “measured” it?

You get what you measure

Using a survey to measure culture is problematic for the following reasons:

1.) It creates conversations about statistics, data, interpretations, and definitions instead of culture. If you are going to bring people together for a conversation shouldn’t it be about the culture?

2.) Most people have a deeply rooted cynicism towards statistics and believe they can be manipulated.

3.) Surveys have a limited scope. They can only measure what they were originally designed to assess. Trying to add new topics retrospectively is very hard.

4.) People are experiencing “survey fatigue” and no longer answering honestly.

5.) Surveys prompt answers. For example one company thought they had a great “customer service” culture because it scored well in a survey, but when people were interviewed not one person talked about the customer or answered from the customers perspective. Customer service was not a driving attitude, but it scored well when they were prompted by a survey.

6.) Achieving a better result in the survey will become the driving force of the culture, especially if the measure has performance targets or KPIs attached to it. Be careful what you wish for.

A better approach

It’s far more effective to engage in conversations and the first should be about your purpose. Discuss why you exist and what you want to achieve – not in terms of targets or KPIs but in terms of your contribution to making the world a better place. Try to create a compelling statement that will motivate at a deeper level. If you are a builder it’s about why you build. If you are a teacher it’s about whyyou teach, not just in terms of educating but in terms of your deeper contribution.

Deloitte’s “Global Human Capital Trends” report found that employees want a career, purpose, and meaningfrom their work. This is a topic people want to discuss.

Consciously choose a culture

Then engage in conversations to define the culture you need to achieve that purpose. Ask simple questions like “what attitudes and behaviours will we need to deliver the purpose?” It’s a rich and motivating conversation that engages people in the purpose andculture of the business.

Keep it simple and memorable. Summarise your desired culture to a word that will stimulate a conversation. One word, the catchier the better. The objective is notto create a definition, it’s to create a conversationabout the attitudes and behaviours needed to deliver your purpose. This process is designed to get people talking about the culture they want to create.

Now you can ask people about the gap between the current and desired culture. What attitudes and behaviours need to change to create the culture we need to deliver our purpose?

To make this work leaders at all levels need to engage in conversations with their people. Stop confusing and alienating people with complex definitions and data. Engage in a conversation about the culture needed to deliver the purpose and transform your business.