What does a culture review involve and why would you invest in it?

What does a culture review involve and why would you invest in it?

How well your organisation is delivering results is largely dependant on the culture.

Culture is “the methods by which things get done”. It includes the behavioural habits of individuals and the embedded group wisdom or shared value that collective team abide by.  The culture of a workplace – positive or negative – is the result of all the operational systems and patterns of behaviour that over time create expectations, attitudes and accepted behaviours, creating your organisation’s cultural personality.

Just like our own personalities, if there is capacity, high productivity and positive collaboration, you feel a natural momentum. If an organisation consistently sees high engagement scores, a culture review would not be needed. If however, engagement scores are low or declining across multiple teams over a period of time then the difference is that a culture review can take a more granular approach. A culture review can uncover issues that engagement questions don’t address, as engagement questions are typically broad and have aspirational framing, which may not allow employees the appropriate forum to raise concerns.

In any environment where there is stress, unaddressed conflict or repeated operational issues over an extended period, poor behaviour can turn a culture from one of possibilities to one that is dysfunctional and toxic. If employees start to feel that behaviours that are accepted are not in the interests of the whole, they will either adapt and/or adopt those same behaviours or they will choose to leave.

If you’ve started to notice this type of behaviour it’s important to recognise if, apart from impacting productivity and staff retention, whether the poor behaviour is in contradiction to the organisation’s code of conduct and WHS legislation regarding psychosocial risk

Signs that a culture may be at risk may include:

  • lack of transparency,
  • negative gossip, 
  • workflow bottlenecks, 
  • increased formal complaints, 
  • increased turnover, and 
  • widespread pursuit of self interest or self protection over collective goals.

The challenge is, even when you’re aware it’s an unhealthy environment, it can be difficult to identify the root cause or change engrained behaviours that have become normalised.  If you’ve tried targeted interventions and training, or you’ve noticed new employees repeating the behaviour even after the ‘difficult employee’ has left, this is when a culture review may be the best approach.

why would you do a culture review?

Improve employee engagement

It has been proven many times that a positive workplace culture can lead to higher levels of employee engagement and productivity. When we work with organisations that are experiencing dysfunction, the typical feedback we hear from employees is they feel they are not heard, and even if they raise a concern, nothing will happen. By conducting a culture review, the organisation has provided an opportunity for all employees to share their feedback and insights in a confidential and objective forum. Even if action is not taken on every issue, being heard and seeing meaningful change through  consistent and targeted initiatives will have a significant impact on a sense of contribution and trust in leadership. 

Don’t get me wrong, many employees will still be dubious, which is why setting up the process and over communicating what to expect and it’s confidentiality is important.

Address toxic behaviour

Everyone who has worked in a toxic workplace culture knows it can lead to high levels of employee turnover and decreased productivity. so much time and energy is spent processing emotions, debriefing and gossip, that it spreads negativity and uncertainty and takes the focus away from priorities. A culture review involving all employees can help identify whether toxic behaviour is concentrated around certain people or teams, or whether poor behaviours are systemic and awareness and training is needed to establish new agreed standards of behaviour.

Increase diversity and inclusion

If you aware of foundations of psychological safety, you’ll know inclusion safety is the first stage of building a psychologically safe culture. If people are feeling directly excluded, or if there are accepted behaviours and language, the review can shine a light on whether certain employees feel in the minority and feel they have less influence.  A workplace culture review can help organisations unearth perceived and unconscious bias in the current culture and where improvements in communication and team dynamics may be valuable.

Align with business goals

We regularly come across situations where an organisation’s leadership thinks the vision and goals have been clearly communicated. But ask those responsible for delivering the vision even one or two layers down and they are often feeling uninspired and uncertain. For a vision and goals to be successfully executed, the understanding and ownership of that vision needs to be cascaded throughout the organisation. There is the story of the cleaners working at NASA, when they were asked what was their job and they replied ‘I help put astronauts into space’. A review can identify areas of the organisation that may feel misaligned or misinformed and then be better placed to take practical steps to improve how vision, goals, and all other information that everyone should be across, is communicated. 

what can stand in the way of doing a culture review?

It takes courage for any person or organisation to invite scrutiny and investigate behaviours and attitudes that may have been let develop under their watch.  Even if it’s clear a culture review may be the right approach, other elements may derail the process or dilute the results.

Resistance to change

Resistance to change is a normal human reaction and conducting a culture review may lead to changes in the way an organisation operates and the influence of some individuals. The fear of loss of what they already have, is often the first human instinct when faced with uncertain change.  Be aware that not everyone will welcome change and some may even attempt to disrupt the process but being clear on why it’s needed and taking the time to have a rigorous process is important. By over communicating a consistent message, including that leadership is open and part of that change, trust can be built in the process and the recommendations.

Lack of resources

Conducting a culture review can require a significant investment of time, money, and resources. If an organisation does not have the necessary resources to conduct a review, it may be challenging to move forward with the process and get meaningful results. Sometimes an approach half done can open a can of worms that can be more damaging than the status quo. If resources whether financial, sufficient time or technical resources, then it may be considering a simplified approach focusing on specific teams, or using focus groups instead of individual interviews and being considered with when and how you engage external training.  This may still provide insight and enable change that can be supported in a more sustainable way.

Fear of speaking up

If there is a culture of fear present, employees could be hesitant to provide honest feedback about the workplace culture, as they may still fear retaliation or repercussions. If poor behaviour has never been addressed or the perpetrators are in positions of authority, then its natural for employees to question whether anything will really be different and how do I know it won’t get back to the managers. The communication needs to repeat what they can expect and its confidentiality at every opportunity. While this fear of speaking up can make it difficult to obtain an accurate picture, if you use both qualitative and quantitative methods, you can still gain insights through what is said as well as not being said. 

Lack of leadership buy-in

For a culture review to be successful, there must be buy-in from leadership. If leaders are not committed to the process it simply won’t work and apart from waste time and money, may do more damage than good. Even if you try to omit questions about the leadership from the review design, employees will tell you anyway if they have issues with the leaders. Feedback on the leadership is often highlighted, whether it’s what leaders have actually done or even failed to do. A culture review can also be a sign to employees that the organisational leaders are not afraid to take responsibility and address issues that are affecting them.  If there is no leadership buy-in and willingness to take on feedback, change simply will not happen.

Cultural barriers

Cultural differences and language barriers can also make it difficult to conduct a culture review. If employees come from diverse backgrounds and have different cultural norms, it can be an added challenge to understand and evaluate what is a shared experience and what actually needs to change. A culture review can provide insights into the barriers that are present that impede an inclusive culture and where greater awareness and acceptance may be needed. 

what does a culture review involve?

Ultimately the objective of a culture review is to unearth the systemic behaviours and attitudes that impact the health of the culture and operations and provide a detailed set of recommendations to address the issues.  Issues are the reason a culture review is needed but the review also includes the strengths of the organisation, including positive aspects and shared objectives. These elements can provide a strong foundation that together with detailed recommendations help move towards a positive and productive culture.

The review may involve collecting feedback from employees through online surveys, focus groups, and 1:1 interviews. It may also involve analysing organisational data, such as turnover rates or employee engagement scores, to identify long term trends and patterns in the workplace culture.

Through a tailored qualitative approach and evidence based tools such as the People At Work survey, a workplace culture review can provide valuable insights for your leaders and managers. While it may be uncomfortable and at times hard to hear, the feedback can help them to understand how their organisation is perceived by employees, how their leadership is impacting others and where they need to make changes to improve the employee experience and business outcomes. 

Things to consider

Conducting a culture review is not a quick fix, as it can take at least two to three months to design, collect and analyse results. The change recommendations may then roll out over six months or more to create sustainable change. It’s also often an emotional and stressful process, so should you decide a culture review is the right approach for your organisation, there are four critical points to consider:

  • Culture review focus and question design. The focus of questions employees are asked much be easily understood and not leading. Employees need to be given the opportunity to share their insights and experience even on the most challenging topics. 
  • How will the results be communicated and to whom. As employees have shared their thoughts and experiences, they may be anxious and for some even agitated about how the results  will be communicated and to who. Being transparent about the process, what will be included in the report and what will not is just as important as communicating who will be viewing the results and when. Everyone processes information in different ways so be prepared for potential agitation and listen for important issues without buying into the noise. 
  • Employees need time and capacity to digest the results and take on change initiatives. Resist the urge to rush into the list recommendations, as each step needs a pause to allow day to day work to continue and let feelings settle before adding the next step.Clear communication of the change plan and the timing of each element should allow sufficient time and resources for change to be embedded. 
  • Choosing the right external partners. A culture review can often highlight behaviour that contradicts the organisation’s code of conduct and/or WHS legislation. Choosing the right partners to conduct the review, as well as having HR / IR specialists across the process, is important to provide you with specialist advice, address any findings, and implement the recommendations.

One of the main reason change initiatives fail is because we typically underestimate the time and resources needed to do it well. A culture review can be the catalyst for change and it takes time and will often create disruption. That is the practical aspect, the emotional energy can be just as significant, and it’s essential to be clear on why the investment is needed. Being able to see the process through while navigating the tensions, as well as discern between real concerns and the noise, can’t be underestimated.  If there are broad ranging issues that can’t be addressed with targeted steps, or behavioural patterns that appear to repeat even after new people join the team, than a culture review may be a valuable investment. 

Andrea has spent over 25 years working with organisations, leaders and employees at every stage of a business and career life cycle. She has created positive impact for organisations through her work with executives, leadership teams, and diverse functional teams within the arts, education, government and media organisations as examples. With over 15 years experience within career development and coaching, her direct knowledge of individuals fears and challenges and insights across a broad spectrum of sectors and organisations, creates a unique understanding of what employees need to thrive.