5 ways our clients create better cultures

By Paul M. Mastrangelo 

We know that every organization has a culture – a way that employees do their work and understand why it should be done that way. We also know that culture boils down to individuals’ behaviors in the social setting that is the workplace. For decades now, leaders charged Human Resources with gauging what the culture was and with helping make that culture what it should be. For its part, HR relied on employee surveys to provide feedback to leaders regarding how culture should be changed.  

Sadly, we also know that successful organizational change is elusive. Maybe common practices are not best practices after all.  

When our clients freed their thinking from what is typically done to assess and affect organizational culture, what did we help them discover? At CultureIQ, we devised a more direct method of getting at what really needs to be changed and how to best create that change. Here are five examples of how clients use our methods to break the workplace culture mold.  

1. They get feedback the organization needs vs. feedback stakeholders wanted 

CEOs, boards of directors, and executives wanted simple answers regarding culture, and HR attempted to comply. Engagement scores and Employee Net Promoter Scores gave stakeholders a single number, and the higher the number, the better. The result has been a focus on ever higher motivation among employees, as if trying harder will make bureaucracy go away and provide improved customer service and create innovative products.  

The feedback organizations need has to be more complex than asking about a friend at work or willingness to recommend a friend join the organization. (Both are helpful if recruiting talent is a problem, but they are not relevant for other outcomes.) Culture has multiple aspects and organizations have multiple desired outcomes; fundamentally, culture involves asking about more than effort.  

The components of culture 

Culture consists of a definition of collective purpose and respect for the dignity of employees and customers. Culture also should address how people will anticipate changes in how they need to behave to accomplish that purpose. Finally, depending on what that purpose is, the culture should strongly affect some combination of employee development, collective curiosity, execution, and collaboration. Evaluating these seven elements also requires a comparison to external and internal benchmarks to understand relative comparisons and momentum toward goals.  

A handful of questions boiled down to one number is not what organizations need to make culture a strategic advantage. A culture assessment based in organizational science using empirically sound methodology lays the foundation of our work at CultureIQ. 

2. They use surveys not merely to assess culture, but to make real change 

Companies collect information via employee surveys because they ask specific questions of the workforce so that problems can be addressed. However, the results frequently raise more questions than answers, making taking action difficult. Thus, the rise of the “Survey followed by Focus Groups” process, which eats up time and raises more complaints than solutions. This cycle stems from the desire to make the survey only an assessment. 

A one-two punch 

The innovative process developed by CultureIQ separates survey assessment of key culture components from survey intervention of specific actionable areas. By first assessing the current state of culture elements that are most critical to their organization’s business goals, then saving the “heavy lifting” of a census survey focused on what needs to change at a more granular level, CultureIQ makes effective actions more identifiable. This one-two punch accelerates culture change in a way that traditional methods cannot provide.  

This initial assessment, which we call CultureBaseline™, sets the table to focus data gathering and develop action plans in our CultureLaunch™ phase.  It is at this final stage that the topics now are more precise and poke at actionable levers for change. Clients learn the drivers of change for their specific outcomes.  

3. They closely monitor change efforts to see how well they worked, and whether they need to be refined 

Customer feedback comes continuously via social media. Financial feedback is nearly instantaneous because of electronic tracking of revenue. Employee feedback, however, is frequently limited to intervals of months or even years. Why? One reason for infrequent requests for employee feedback is that leaders assume that changing culture requires a lengthy time to move the organization from point A to point B. 

Using that logic, leaders want months or years to get to point B. Of course, that logic is faulty because it assumes that point B is still where they think it is, that the road to point B is not filled with new obstacles, and that point B is still the best destination.  

Waiting vs. watching 

Waiting in this manner is like using last week’s weather forecast to plan an activity with your family. You arrive at the beach in bathing suits, but it’s cold and raining and all of the movie theaters are now sold out.    

Assessing progress toward change, however, most certainly maintains effort and direction toward the desired culture. If leaders believe it will take one year to reestablish trust or eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy, then continuous employee feedback is necessary to determine in real time what impact actions are having on behaviors and processes.  

Keep your eyes on your actions ... 

Because actions can have unintended effects. For instance, if leaders try to boost morale by having events on Friday afternoons, and that happens to be the time that record-keeping work must be done, they’ll help one thing but hurt another.  

The only way to really know how culture works is to start altering pieces. But you can’t make changes blindly; otherwise you are only going through the motions – and your motions might do more harm than good. This is not the way CultureIQ clients tackle change.  

4. They seek continuous dialogue over continuous listening 

Another excuse rolled out to explain infrequent employee feedback is that having too many surveys will create survey fatigue. This excuse comes from the same faulty assumption in example No. 3 above: surveying without assessing change. Everybody knows that answering survey questions is not fatiguing. Rather, it is answering questions without seeing any change that is fatiguing because employees deduce that surveys are simply an exercise and not a means for improvement. Yet, when the questions evolve from (a) general topics to (b) specific actionable areas to (c) an assessment of what actions have taken place, employees can fine-tune what needs to change and then express frustration if there is no progress in those areas. CultureIQ clients are not simply creating continuous listening programs; they’re opening up continuous dialog opportunities.  

A conversation killer 

Can you imagine a conversation between you and another person that happens repeatedly, but never builds on what was said last time? That’s not just a cause for fatigue, but a cause for walking away from the relationship (i.e., lower survey participation, lower engagement, less effective change initiatives).  

CultureIQ helps our clients create dynamic culture assessments at a pace that pushes the right changes in a way that unifies employees, managers, and senior leaders toward the desired culture. The progress, whether positive, negative, or stalled, drives the next part of the dialog so that driving change becomes relentless and attaining the outcome is accelerated.  

5. They empower employees to be conduits of change vs. objects of change  

Whenever there is talk about the difficulty of changing an organization’s culture, there is inevitably mention of employees resisting change, which leads to discussion of how to handle “them” as if they are a resistance force in an occupied country during war. 

CultureIQ has been presenting a very different approach for several years, one that is based on empirical data showing that most employees very much want changes to occur. In fact, employees often desire change at a faster rate than what occurs, and as already mentioned, they get frustrated when they are asked their opinion but they see no change. Ironic, no? 

Feeling left out 

Leaders and employees see each other as resisting change, and they might both be right in a way. Leaders often form their plans for change in isolation or with the help of handpicked team members, which means that most employees have change thrust upon them. No one likes to be told to change their behavior. In this scenario, employees are not resisting change so much as they are resisting being forced to comply with changes that lack their input and guidance.  

Likewise, employees often see leaders failing to take action on the issues that are most frustrating. Employees might say, “They don’t want to put in any effort on what really needs to change, so they run some meetings, create some new policy, and we keep doing things exactly as we always did.”  

Finding people who can end the failure loop 

Again, it’s not resistance to change, but resistance to how change is being implemented. This failure loop disappears, however, when our clients see employees as conduits of change rather than objects of change. They do this by: 

  • Identifying individuals who are respected by employees and yet most open to trying a different way to get work done.  
  • Bringing those individuals into a group that represents important segments of the organization, sitting beside the leader of that group with a collective goal of achieving a specific outcome.  
  • Ensuring that members of this group communicate analyses, plans, progress, and evaluations with people outside the group, but also that they gather feedback and ideas from the outside to bring to the group.  
  • Showcasing their transformative work and emphasizing an iterative approach until the outcome is achieved – an outcome not based on survey scores, but related performance metrics that are publicly displayed to maintain momentum and focus.  

Employees who started out reluctant are involved as participants even if just in minor ways. Soon, there will be a network of highly committed, active change agents.  

Undoing the way we have always done it’ 

For each instance of these improved ways to effect culture change, the hardest part is not engaging in the innovative process but overcoming prior lessons, which despite yielding few tangible wins are adhered to because “that’s the way we have always done it.”  

As soon as our clients say they want a culture that yields A, B, and C outcomes, we at CultureIQ ask not only for commitment to those outcomes, but also separation from change management concepts based on outdated or illogical assumptions. Then, our clients find a better way to change organizational culture, to drive more successful business outcomes and to build better place to work.   

Paul M. Mastrangelo is a Principal Strategist at CultureIQ

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