Culture isn’t meant to be measured. Here’s why, and what you should measure instead.
“How do you measure company culture?”
Someone asked me this recently.
My answer: You can’t. And you don’t want to.
Why? Because culture, technically defined, is the artifacts, espoused values and beliefs, and basic underlying assumptions that people have. And that can’t be measured quantitatively.
Nor is it the point of culture, to begin with.
Culture is an organization’s compass for behavior. It’s what people use to decide what actions are acceptable, and what are not. At one company, it guides people to publicly report a mistake. At another company, it nudges people to brush a similar mistake under the rug.
To say you want to measure culture is like saying you want to measure a compass. You could pick it up and say, “Hmm, let me rate the shininess of this compass, or weigh how heavy it is.” But, really, what you care about is if the compass points you to where you want to go. Measuring the compass itself doesn’t do you much good.
The distinction is important. Because if you don’t see culture as a lever that influences what you’re trying to accomplish as a team, and instead as the thing itself you’re trying to maintain, you lose sight of culture’s power in the first place: Culture helps a group of people get what they want done, done.
As a result, what you can measure are the outputs of culture. The observable behaviors and outcomes you want to see as the consequences of your culture.
Possibly the most important output to gauge is progress. Ask your team, “Do you feel like you’re making meaningful progress every day?” Studies show how progress, more than anything, influences employee motivation.
This means defining what “progress” looks like on a day-to-day basis. Is it the speed by which things are happening? Is it the quality of the work being produced? Is it the number of people you’re helping because your work product exists?
It could also mean asking questions to your company about how helpful their manager is in supporting them to make progress, or how frequently they encounter frustrating obstacles in a given week.
In short: If you want to measure culture, start with clearly defining what the outputs of a successful, healthy culture looks like for you — and get super specific. Then, figure out what questions you can ask employees on a regular basis to gauge for that.
Don’t measure the compass, itself.
P.S.: If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)
Beer taps and foosball tables aren’t signs of a strong company culture — honest communication and rigorous + respectful debate are. Here’s how to build a culture of the latter.
Culture, at its core, is not what we outwardly say or show. Culture is rooted in our basic underlying assumptions — what we truly believe, even when we choose not to verbalize those thoughts. In order to tap into our basic underlying assumptions and ensure they’re aligned across the team, we have to engage in feedback. We have to create a culture where people are willing to talk about what they’re really thinking, challenge those thoughts, and find out where the overlap is with their peers.
A culture that’s built on feedback — the honest, rigorous exchange of beliefs and ideas — far outlasts a culture that hinges on office or experiential perks. Free lunches, massages in the office, ping pong tables… Those artifacts, while pleasurable, are only surface-level. A culture of feedback is what ultimately enables a team to perform its best.
While creating a culture of feedback is a nuanced process that can take months (or years!) to fully cement, here are seven tips to get you started:
Learn to give constructive feedback. It seems simple and straightforward, but it’s often difficult, and many managers admit to pushing off the tough conversations or sugar-coating feedback.
Deliver the bad news. Believe it or not, it makes you a better leader. It helps you engage with your team more and tell them what they actually want to hear.
Effectively prepare for one-on-one meetings. Don’t short-change yourself or your employees by phoning in these important conversations. Prepare questions to ask to better focus the meeting, which is a critical component of a feedback culture.
Close the feedback loop. If you want to be a good manager, you can’t just make the call. You have to also explain it.
Go first. You can’t expect your co-workers to be open with you if you’re not open with them. You’re the leader, so it’s important that you set the right tone in a feedback culture by not being afraid to dive in.
Enjoy this? Get our latest leadership insights, as they’re released.
Let’s look past the buzzword and define the key elements of organizational culture.
“Culture” has become the ultimate buzzword these days.
Everyone wants to “improve their company culture.” I see the word frequently littered across the headlines of countless of articles, book titles, and conference talk topics. Leaders also seem to talk about it all the time: CEOs say company culture is their first or second most-important priority as a leader.
Yet for as much we seem to talk about it, do we really know what culture is?
If we want to influence our company culture, we have to start with a keen understanding of what culture actually is.
What is company culture, really?
“Culture is the way we do things around here.”
You may have heard this before. It’s how prominent organizational consultants Terry Deal and Allan Kennedy defined culture in the 1980s. Culture is the thing you can’t necessary touch and feel — it’s the invisible binds and unspoken rules that enforce “how people do things around here.”
However, this definition can be insufficient at times. “The way we do things” feels awfully vague and amorphous, especially when it comes to thinking about how to intentionally create a company culture we’re proud of.
As a result, our attempts to influence culture get muddled. We conflate culture with surface-level relics, confusing culture with “Things To Make People Feel Good.” Think ping pong tables and happy hours and free lunches. Sure, those are part of “the way we do things” — but it doesn’t explain why you’re doing those things. Culture includes that why.
Let’s take a look at culture a few levels deeper.
Three levels of culture
Edgar Schein, another prominent organizational scholar, defined culture as having three levels:
This is the level of culture closest to the surface. Artifacts are things you can see, touch, smell. Ping pong tables, happy hours, and free lunches. It’s also the office layout, the logo rebranding you just did, and your company holiday party. This is typically what we think of when it comes to company culture.
Espoused values and beliefs
One level deeper are your espoused values and beliefs. These are the things you think you believe and say you believe. It’s the mission statement you wrote together as a company, the code of conduct that’s in your employee handbook, or the six core company values your CEO talks about during your all-staff meeting.
Basic underlying assumptions
This is the final, core layer of culture. Basic underlying assumptions are the things you actually believe. For example, at Know Your Team, we have a basic underlying assumption that we must be honest, regardless of the personal cost. So when we made a big mistake a few years ago, we proactively shared it with our customers, even it meant risking losing them. Our basic underlying assumption steered our decision-making and how “we do things around here” — ultimately, driving our culture.
Our basic underlying assumptions are the foundation of culture. If we can influence our basic underlying assumptions, we can influence culture.
Why this matters
More often than not, there’s a misalignment between this final layer — the basic underlying assumptions — and the espoused values and beliefs and artifacts. The things you actually believe, versus the things you say you believe and the things you do to show it.
Perhaps the most glaring case has been Uber. A company that no doubt had artifacts as “proof” that they valued their employees — lavish office parties and state-of-the-art offices. A company that had 14 cultural values it touted, including that employees should “be themselves.” And yet the basic underlying assumption persisted: Win at all costs, by any means necessary. We saw this in countless of examples of questionable ethics and sexual harassment issues ignored. At its core, Uber’s culture was rooted in this aggressive, toxic mindset — and that manifested in how they treated their people, regardless of what superficial artifacts or espoused values they trumpeted.
If you’re looking to truly shift your company’s culture, you have to zoom in on this last and final layer: Your basic underlying assumptions. What you truly believe — not always what you say or outwardly show — is what drives your company’s culture. This should be your focus as a manager, CEO or employee.
Changing your company culture is not about just changing the artifacts. Getting beer taps installed in the kitchens doesn’t make your culture more friendly. Nor does building an onsite gym mean your culture all of sudden cares about employees’ health and well-being.
Changing your company culture also isn’t about just changing the espoused values and beliefs. Saying at all-company meetings, “We believe in honesty and transparency” or writing “We believe in diversity and inclusion” on your career website doesn’t automatically make those things true. Changing your company culture is about tapping into the core beliefs of each individual, understanding what their basic underlying assumptions are, and creating an environment where those can be listened to, brought together, and reacted to.