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Organizational Culture: Observation or Survey?

Organizational Culture: Observation or Survey?

  • 23 March 2017
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Learning to “see” culture; group dynamics, beliefs, and behaviors is always helpful at work. When you become aware you can contribute to developing a positive culture - or you can better understand what change is needed in your organization. There are roughly two ways to understand and assess the current organizational culture.

The anthropological approach

The first is the anthropological way. With an open mind, you gather data. You observe behaviors and what’s happening, ask questions to interpret the meaning of events, participate in rituals, interview people about what they think, hope, believe and assume, observe who is interacting with whom, who makes decisions, who gets airtime during meetings, and so on. Additionally, you read and analyze documents such as the appraisal forms (that tell you what is being valued thus rated), the organization’s annual report (count and analyze what words are used), the official vision and mission, recruitment ads, and so on.

The anthropological approach yields rich, qualitative information that can be very insightful and might already contain the answer to what needs to change for this organizational system to thrive.

The disadvantages could be that it is time-consuming and that the gathered data can be so diverse and particular that they are hard to categorize in a comprehensible pattern. You could be swamped in a sea of observations without any structure.

Conditions for use

The conditions to use this approach are:

  • You need to be able (or train yourself) to observe facts and to distinguish facts from your personal interpretations - for this, you need to have an open mind and suspend judgment and expectations. This may be harder to do than you think. There are exercises to train this competence (including mindfulness).
  • You’d best do this with a team of co-workers to arrive at “inter-subjectivity”. No one can be completely objective but together you can find the red thread in the observations that everyone agrees on.

The assessment approach

The second is using a formal, validated culture tool - a “lens” to discern and categorize your culture based on a culture model. Often, culture tools gather data by including all organization members to complete an assessment or questionnaire to determine the current culture. If you don’t want to use a survey, you can also compare your observations to the culture types described by a model to understand the current culture.

The assessment approach yields quick, both quantified and qualitative information from all members who participated in the culture survey - based on a researched, validated culture model. It offers a rather objective overview of culture, with all data categorized into culture types - even though you’ll have to add more specific qualitative information when you discuss the outcome.

The disadvantage could be that an assessment raises expectations of a big upcoming change (if not properly communicated) and unsettles people. Another drawback is that you only see what the model presumes - and if you don't add rich qualitative examples of daily behaviors and events - you’ll end up with an abstract map of culture types or values while missing something vital in the everyday reality of the organizational system. Assessments offer a great foundation to check your current reality - but it’s essential to have a dialogue about the results to add rich observational data.

Conditions for use

The conditions to use this approach are:

  • Include everyone from the unit you’d like to develop whether it’s the team, group or organization
  • Use a third party to host the assessment and make sure that privacy and safety of the respondents are guaranteed
  • Communicate clearly why you use this assessment and what you intend to do with the results - and
  • Assure that every respondent receives the survey outcome
  • Prepare to have dialogue meetings about the outcome - don’t deploy a survey if you don’t want to work with and elaborate on the results
  • Let participation in both the assessment and the dialogue be voluntary - not mandatory or biased by incentives to participate.

You want to make sure that people are genuinely interested and sharing what they experience. If there’s no energy or interest in the assessment - there’s an indication of other issues to tend to first. For instance, lack of trust, or people being survey-fatigued after bad experiences with the mandatory annual engagement survey or being overworked and too busy.

Using the best of both

Even though this looks like a long list of caveats - I prefer working with assessments as a reality check and to benefit from their inter-subjective (viewpoints of all people combined), quantified and validated nature. But an assessment only creates a map - it is not the same as the territory.

That’s why I combine the OCAI assessment with gathering anthropological data as well - for instance in Change Circles or dialogue meetings where we discover daily examples of the culture profile and work with the results. I describe this approach in my book Organizational Culture Change: Unleash your organization's potential in Circles of 10.

Do you want to know how your organization scores on the Competing Values Framework? Do the free individual OCAI trial here. Or check out the paid Pro and Enterprise assessments for teams and organizations.

I'm going to discuss a couple of culture models so you can discover what would be the best way for your organization to assess and change the culture. Feel free to let me know what you think!

© Marcella Bremer 2017. All right reserved.