Culture surveys: Influencing leadership, or masking responsibility?

I’m not sure about culture surveys. On one hand there is some good in putting organisational culture on public agenda, on the other there’s some contention about whether they actually measure what they say they do. It’s a great idea to get some indicators on a chart that show an organisations tendency towards certain behaviours, as long as the behaviours are valid indicators of culture and performance.

The validity and reliability of the survey is important because there is a heavy reliance on the results to guide action planning. But what if the chosen model of culture, upon which the survey is based, doesn’t adequately address the issues of the organisation?  One possible outcome is the treatment of the proverbial symptom; another is using organisational culture (a collective thing) as a cover-up for poor top level leadership.

Consider the case of an organisation where CEO and direct reports are completely dysfunctional in their engagement with their people. In desperation some middle manager or OD person arranges a cultural survey as a roundabout way of addressing the leadership issue.  Would it work? I have my doubts.

I’m sure, if used correctly, cultural surveys can deliver great benefits; however to be successful, I reckon they need to be driven from the top – not the middle.

Do you agree, or can organisational leadership be successfully influenced from within?

2 thoughts on “Culture surveys: Influencing leadership, or masking responsibility?

  1. Mark,

    I feel that as the people completing the survey on culture are part of the culture you are not going to achieve realistic results. Nobody wants to admit to being part of ‘the problem’ and they are likely to provide an idealised perspective. I also think that any survey which attempts to evaluate ‘the culture’ is probabaly ignoring the possibility that in an organisation there a probabaly many cultures, differentiated by location, department and even function. If you really want to know about you organisation’s culture I think you should ask your customers.

    In considering your points about leadership and culture, I think that if a senior executive needs to do surveys to understand the culture there is a serious issue at the executive level. How can you be leading an organisation and not know the culture? Perhaps that’s a harsh question but I feel that if you are not in touch with the culture you are certainly not in a position to ‘fix’ it.

    There seems little point to me in asking what staff think about culture. As a leader I think my responsibility is to define the culture I want for my business and to do what I need to do, in a way that is consistent with my vision of the culture, to achieve the desired outcome.

    Culture by consensus is surely a path to mediocrity.

    • Hi Rod,
      Great idea to look at culture by assessing performance and asking the customers. I also agree that people don’t like being part of the problem. One thing about some of the culture surveys that I’ve seen is that they suggest repeating the very same survey down the track. Cynically, I think this is a bit of a money spinner, but also has the effect of teaching the organisation how to complete surveys to get better results. We raise the expectations of better results, run the survey and surprise-surprise, we get better results.

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