Guidelines for Assessing Organizational Culture

Why do company efforts to initiate organizational change fail? We've worked with numerous organizations in the midst of change. No matter the change, no matter the company, there is one constant that largely determines success or failure – it is the role and importance of organizational culture.

Culture is the beliefs, values, and assumptions that shape behaviors and help individuals understand the organization. Culture is often so strong and so powerful that when there is a discrepancy or inconsistency between the current culture and the objectives of change, the culture will win. An organization's culture is directly related to its effectiveness and has everything to do with the bottom line. But how do you define the culture of an organization?

  • Look around. What do the headquarters and other buildings look like? How are people dressed? How much interaction is there? Who is talking to whom? How does the place “feel”?
  • Read newsletters and other internal documents. What values are emphasized? Who is held up for praise? Are parties, celebrations, or other ceremonies mentioned? What sorts of things are discussed?
  • Look at annual reports or other communications to those outside the firm. What “face” is being presented to the world?
  • Ask, “Can you tell me anything about what the culture is like here? Are there any stories that people here tell about Company XYZ?”
  • Ask, “What values are stressed in Company XYZ? How are they communicated? How are they reinforced?”
  • Ask, “ Who is looked up to in Company XYZ?”
  • See what you can learn about rites and ceremonies in the organization. What happens when people accomplish something? Are there “rites of passage” such as promotion ceremonies and retirement parties? Are there regular “get-togethers” such as holiday parties, social events, and company luncheons?
  • Ask, “What sorts of behaviors are expected and rewarded here? What sorts of behaviors are punished?
  • Ask people outside the firm what they think of it.
  • Check magazines, newspapers, and other sources to get clues about the culture.
  • As appropriate, use quantitative measures such as a tailored culture survey.

Making Sense of the Information

Once the culture of an organization is defined, leaders can determine what current behaviors are being reinforced.  If these characteristics are in conflict with the desired culture, change initiatives can target desired outcomes.  Additional questions to ask include:

  • Overall, how salient is the culture?
    • Do leaders mention culture, values, and heroes in their messages?
    • Do organizational members talk much about culture and its elements?
  • What primary themes emerge?
  • Are responses consistent across people, levels, and units?
  • How does everything fit together?
    • Are valued behaviors rewarded?
    • Are symbols, stories, heroes, and ceremonies consistent?

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