Evaluating culture isn’t something organizations can afford to put on the back burner. 57% of employees say culture is just as important as salary, and a recent study of employee benefits found a flexible and supportive culture makes employees 1.5x more likely to stay in their jobs.
So, how does an organization get to know the state of its culture? In many organizations, measurement comes down to some version of an all-company employee survey. Retention and hiring rates may also be informative. And, of course, there are those stories – whether grumblings or praise – that make it to the ears of the people sitting in the C-suite. But none of these approaches is comprehensive. If these are your current methods, you’re likely missing important opportunities to raise your culture game and reap the business benefits.
A cultural assessment is a formal process that helps your organization better define your culture and look for areas of improvement. We sat down with two Blue Beyond consultants who have helped countless organizations in every industry find their way to better cultures through assessments and tactical interventions. Gabby Tharkur and Sue Bunk gave us their take on what makes for an effective cultural assessment, and how organizations can get the most value and action out of the process.
Sue and Gabby both admit culture is one of those things that lots of organizations define differently. “It feels ambiguous,” Sue said, “which is why I like the framework we use at Blue Beyond so much: Culture is what makes us, us.” Culture encompasses a lot: an organization’s purpose and values, what it aspires to be, how leaders lead, what everyone working at the organization hopes to achieve, to name a few. Sue said, “We’ll often start with a simple question to employees: When you’re talking to your friends or family, how do you describe your organization and how you do your work there?”
Gabby explained, “Culture – along with mission vision and values – is more for internal use. It helps the organization figure out how it wants to treat its employees and makes sure people are living up to that.”
A cultural assessment provides an objective view of something that’s nebulous and hard to see when you’re close to it. Gabby said, “Some leaders will just assume that what they’re hearing in bits and pieces is what the culture is, but you won’t really know, because you’re not hearing from all the voices.”
Sue agreed. “You can make inferences based on what you feel or what the squeaky wheel is saying, but what about the folks you’re not hearing from?” she said.
An assessment also helps organizations identify causes of culture issues. “You might assume what the problem areas are, but maybe those are just symptoms and not root causes that you can’t fix without digging deeper,” Gabby said. “It’s easy to make assumptions, but without an assessment, you won’t uncover the full story.”
Sue added, “When you know root causes, you can really solve problems or do more of what you’re doing well.” Which brings up the important point that cultural assessments aren’t just about finding out what’s going wrong, but also what’s going right.
“Your culture could be in a great place, but it’s still good to know why, so you can maintain it,” Gabby said.
A cultural assessment is designed to tease out what the company’s culture is, what everyone wants it to be and where there are gaps. In the Blue Beyond process, this comes down to answers in three fundamental areas:
Both Sue and Gabby caution it’s important to look at processes along with behaviors. Processes may not feel very “cultural” but can often be quite telling. Sue explained with an example. “Suppose the company says: ‘We empower people,’ but then there’s a process, say, a spending limit for upper management. That process might create a feeling around it that isn’t empowering. In an assessment, we’re thinking about and asking questions about all those kinds of things.”
Just as there are many ways to define culture, there are different methods for conducting a cultural assessment. If you’re considering undertaking one in your organization, Sue and Gabby have good advice for getting the most out of the process.
An all-company survey may allow you to get information from everyone who works in the organization, but it isn’t the best forum for employee expression. Blue Beyond conducts focus group sessions to dig deep into key issues, giving employees the time and space to speak freely about culture. Focus groups – which should always include people from all levels of the company – can then be followed by an all-company survey. “The survey lets us pressure-test some of the information we learned in the focus groups,” Gabby said. “It also ensures that every employee has a chance to have their voice heard.”
No two companies are alike, no two cultures are alike, and no two assessments should be alike. An effective cultural assessment begins with understanding your organization’s goals and vision. “Culture is such an enabling factor to reach a company’s goals, whether that’s profit, less turnover, attracting talent, innovation and so on,” said Sue. “We want to know: What is the purpose of bringing us in? We have a methodology and thought process but it’s very specific to the client’s goals.”
Nurturing culture feels like it belongs in the hands of HR, but when it’s implemented well, it moves beyond that realm. “Culture is not an HR thing, it’s a business thing,” Sue said.
“If we’re engaging that leadership team, that’s going to drive the culture,” Gabby agreed. “More and more clients are looking at making culture not only an enabler in their business strategy but a driver to reach goals.” Leadership buy-in across departments helps ensure culture remains a priority.
Cultural assessments are often most useful in and around periods of change. The reasons to do an assessment can be proactive or reactive – both are valid strategies. “A business might be proactive and say: We have foresight, but let’s do an assessment to see where we are and use culture to help us get there. And we’re seeing more and more of that,” Sue said. “But 3-4 years ago, it was more reactive, based on retention, or what the organization was hearing about culture in exit interviews.” She continued, “There may also be things happening in the business that make it a nice point in time to do this, such as a change in leadership. That’s a good time to pause, take stock, and think about: Where do we want to go in the future?”
External change can also trigger the need for a culture assessment. Gabby explained, “Right now, for example, with the battle for talent, the changing priorities of the next generation of employees, and being competitive in your industry, you might need to be doing an assessment. There could also be some other external factor that has you rethinking what you need to keep your business moving forward.”
A cultural assessment is just the first step in an ongoing process. “After the assessment come recommendations and a plan of action,” Gabby said. She recommends actions that give employees something tangible right away.
Sue agreed. “Culture change does take time,” she noted. “Depending on where you are and where you’re looking to go, it could take years to get there.” But, even with a long-term goal, it’s important for employees to begin seeing change quickly. That might mean immediately implementing a recognition program or forming a special team around one of your goals. Your action plan should be specific to the findings of your assessment and your goals. Sue shared an example. “I have a client, and people love the culture, but they’re not talking about it,” she said. “So their activation strategy was focused on articulating their culture.” Follow-up should also be part of the tactical plan. Pulse surveys at regular intervals can help measure progress toward goals, in between doing your next full-scale assessment.
Culture is complicated, and the results from an assessment can be a lot to digest.
“There’s so much you can do with the findings,” Gabby noted. “It’s helpful to have a consultant come in and unpack them.” Gabby said consultants are helpful guides to getting organizations to the change they want, without overwhelming them. “Consultants can hold up the mirror and say, ‘Let us help you to achieve the goal’ and break down the theme into actionable items,” she said. “Then the organization can see some quick wins and employees experience those. You do this by doing small changes quickly, so it shows up right away. Consultants help you do that by thought partnering and supplementing what you’re doing to get things done more quickly.”
Imagine showing up for your annual medical physical. The doctor steps in, takes your blood pressure, pronounces you healthy and says, “See you next year.” That’s not much of an assessment of your total health. What about your heart rate? Your moods? Should you be exercising more?
So it is with organizational health. Looking at individual factors like profitability, spending, and employee retention will only tell you so much. Cultural assessments add an important dimension to the overall picture of the organization, helping to identify problem areas, spotlight what’s going well and set goals for the future. The right assessment, conducted at the right time and with the right support, can establish important benchmarks for steady progress toward the goals that matter most to your organization.