Today’s post is by Michael Henderson, author of Above the Line: How to Create a Company Culture that Engages Employees, Delights Customers and Delivers (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
A company’s culture plays a significant role in driving performance, retaining staff and influencing customer experience. If you agree, then it might be time to look into how your organization identifies its culture. If you’re simply relying on an annual staff engagement survey, you might be surprised, and not necessarily pleased with the results.
Many organizations use staff engagement surveys for establishing the status of employee morale or as a means of positioning an organization as an award-winning place to work. However many organizations are increasingly falling into the trap of relying on their engagement survey tool to define and describe their workplace culture. It’s as Abraham Maslow once noted, “If you only have a hammer as a tool, then every problem is a nail.” In other words, just because you are already using an engagement survey to assess employee morale doesn’t mean the survey is designed to measure culture.
Engagement surveys may indeed measure many variables within an organization, but culture isn’t one of them. The following are five reasons why engagement surveys are ineffective for revealing your organization’s culture:
1. Opinions are not culture. Engagement survey questions are designed to ask employees their opinions on such topics as; their boss, the warmth of their workplace atmosphere, or whether they perceive they have friends amongst their colleagues. But an opinion of a culture is not the culture itself. For example, if I travel to France and develop a less than favorable opinion of French culture, that does not mean that I have understood or defined French culture, but only that I have formed a biased opinion of the culture. Many organizations fail to make this important distinction and, in doing so, often make decisions about the culture – or the changes required in the culture – based on opinions and not through understanding the cultural dynamics themselves. Most engagement surveys are superficial in their explanation of culture. If you truly want to understand your workplace culture watch it in action in real time on the job and you are likely to see where it works or doesn’t, or whether it leads to collaboration or creativity or not. Rather than asking employees for their opinion on culture, try asking if they find the culture to be collaborative or creative.
2. Culture isn’t numbers. Many engagement surveys are designed to deliver, as a key outcome, some form of metric measurement. For example, if the most recent engagement survey resulted in a 10% increase in the average staff engagement from 34% to 44%, that 10% increase appears to be progress. This 10% shift in staff engagement is great, but to use this as a means to identifying a corresponding shift in culture is misleading. Why? Because you can’t measure culture! Percentages and averages do not define or describe a culture. These are all simply measurements of the culture’s outputs and outcomes, but not the culture itself. Culture is intangible. It is a collectively shared understanding of values that motivate and inspire behaviors. The culture itself can only be experienced and described. The moment we think we are measuring a culture, if we look closely and deeply enough, we quickly discover what we are measuring is not the culture itself, but an output of the culture.
3. Every culture is different. Standard questions in engagement surveys are designed to enable the comparison of results with other organizations. Given that every culture is different – absolutely different! – a standard set of questions cannot and does not work for identifying the unique qualities of a culture. Each culture requires its own set of questions to both understand and improve the culture. Standard questions may be suitable for simply understanding and measuring employee engagement – or outcomes – but when the same standard questions are assumed to be useful in defining the sameness or difference between the accounts teams, production teams, sales and service teams and legal teams, then the questions become problematic in themselves.
4. Engagement surveys are disengaging. How employees feel about completing an engagement survey is usually a more telling indicator about the company culture than the survey results themselves. Many staff loathe being asked – or forced – to complete their annual engagement survey. The reluctance to complete the survey, coupled with the contradiction of coercing people to do so, could well indicate, for example, that the culture has become compliant or fear-based. Yet this useful insight could be ignored as managers drive through the process of having all staff complete the survey and then wait for the formal results to understand the culture they are overseeing. The end results are unlikely to highlight a compliance-based or fear-driven culture, despite the fact they exist and were observable during the drive to complete the survey.
5. Culture is always contextual. Most engagement surveys do not take into account the wider, strategic, social economic, political or environmental factors that are influencing experiences and beliefs within a culture. Every organization attempting to make sense of or align its culture, without understanding context within which the culture has formed, is missing the crucial information and data that has led to the cultures formation. Attempts to understand the culture without placing it in a wider context means the culture has not been understood at all.
If your organization takes culture seriously, then make sure your annual engagement survey hasn’t become its leading determinant. If it has, it may well mislead you into over or underestimating your workplace culture. Far better to observe and listen to behavior patterns and conversations throughout your organization, over extended periods of time to identify the rituals, rites, lore and rigor, meaning and motivations of your peoples collective endeavors that shape and direct your culture.
– Michael Henderson is a corporate anthropologist and author of Above the Line: How to Create a Company Culture that Engages Employees, Delights Customers and Delivers (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
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