Ethics Exchange: Ethical Culture (Part Three): Know Thy Culture

By Ethics Exchange posted Dec 20,2013 13:28

Steve Priest: Jeff, this topic conflicts me. I make a lot of money assessing cultures or helping organizations assess their own cultures. And yet I believe there is a misplaced desire for a measurement that purports to mean something about culture across time and companies. Like EBITDA does for profit. And I don’t believe such a measurement can be constructed for culture. What do you think about assessing cultures?

Jeff Kaplan: I’m conflicted for the same reason you are, but – as with most E&C things – we obviously need to be careful that the perfect doesn't become the enemy of the good, and falling into the latter category are a wide array of imperfect but generally helpful measurement measures. Some of these are, of course, the types of things that you and I do for a living: interviews, surveys, focus groups, but which might also be done (depending on a variety of factors) using only internal resources. Maturity models – if deployed in a culture-sensitive way – can certainly be a good tool for measuring culture, particularly in business units or geographies. Another, maybe more forward looking, approach would be to aggregate E&C-related data from performance evaluations and see what that says about culture. Of these, and other, measures, what do you think works – and what doesn't?

Steve: First, before I opine, tell me what you mean by maturity model. I assume this is not Meryl Streep in a swimsuit.

Jeff: Careful, you could get us kicked off the air. What I mean is a process that defines different levels of development – from partial, through implementation, to mature or higher – for different parts of an E&C program. Aspects of that process can seek to measure the extent to which a program promotes and is reflective of a good E&C culture. For instance, the higher levels of the model might measure (among other things) how much managers pull the E&C team into the business units, rather than being pushed to have them in.

Steve: Got it. Your maturity model makes sense, even if it has never won an Oscar. Let’s step back for a moment to understand why assessing cultures is important. Primarily it is so that E&C, and management, can identify priorities. If fear of retaliation is an issue, then there are concrete steps that can be taken to reduce it. If there are accountability problems in France (imagine that!), then you know you need to take specific actions there. A second reason is to send a signal to the organization—and line leaders—that culture matters. However if you measure (or attempt to measure) culture and then do nothing with the results, you send the opposite message: that culture does not really matter. In focus groups, “we get surveyed all the time, but nothing ever changes” is the most common objection raised to assessment efforts.

Jeff: I definitely agree that whether it is a culture assessment, risk assessment or any other type of E&C program-related checking, doing nothing with the results is worse than not assessing at all. But let’s turn to something else – how much should a culture assessment be quantitative and how much should it be qualitative?

Steve: Effective culture assessments are more like mosaics or dashboards than thermometers. Incorporate quantitative measures from surveys and qualitative insight from focus groups. Add Help Line metrics, disciplinary data, and HR information (e.g. unwanted attrition). Consider incorporating information from audits, EEO claims and customer complaint files.

Jeff: Sounds good to me. And, of course, interviews of various personnel help inform the process. Executives should be part of this, of course, but others too. Indeed, I once got very helpful culture information in an assessment from a union representative. I also had a client who got great assessment information by taking the sales people at this company out for drinks.

Steve: Since I hail from Wisconsin, I must endorse the drink recommendation. Informal, ongoing assessment can be as valuable as a periodic, formal assessment. Maybe more so. But the value of a formal culture assessment is that it gets the attention of management and the Board. That’s why it is too precious an opportunity to simply use a number or two from a survey. Not only do survey numbers often raise as many questions more questions than they answer (“why do our employees fear retaliation?”) they are often simply misleading. In my focus groups I often use anonymous voting tools to ask questions similar to survey questions. And the variance between focus group responses and survey responses is striking. When I ask why, the answer inevitably is “We lie in the surveys. Nothing good will come to us for giving the ‘wrong’ answer.” So I guess my road sign summary for all of this is “Culture with Care.”

Jeff: Happy holidays to you, Steve – and to all members of the ECOA community.

#Culture #CultureValuesStatement