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Culture Surveys: The pros and cons, the do’s and don’ts

Let’s start with the definition of organisational culture.

Organisational culture refers to the shared values, beliefs, customs, practices and behaviours that shape the attitudes and actions of people within an organisation.  

 It is a set of norms and values that guide the way people interact with each other and approach their work. It also extends to their view of the organisation’s mission, vision, and goals. Some people state culture as “The way we do things around here.”.  

What influences organisational culture?

Organisational culture can be influenced by a variety of factors, such as the organisation’s values, leadership styles, communication methods, work environment and overall strategy.  

There are many things that influence culture. This is why understanding culture requires numerous considerations. Understanding organisational culture is important for businesses because it can have a significant impact on their success and sustainability over the long term. 

Sometimes people use the term “climate” when describing their organisation. Culture and climate are two related but distinct concepts that are often used interchangeably, they refer to various aspects of an organisation. So, what is the difference between an organisation’s culture and an organisation’s climate. 

As previously mentioned, organisational culture refers to the shared values, beliefs and behaviours that shape the attitudes and actions of people within an organisation. It is a long-term, deeply ingrained set of norms and values that guide the way people interact with each other and approach their time and actions work. Culture is often seen as the “personality” of the organisation and can be difficult to change. 

On the other hand, organisational climate refers to the immediate and observable aspects of an organisation’s environment. This includes elements such as the physical setting, communication patterns, leadership style, and people’s attitudes.  

Climate is a short-term and dynamic concept compared to culture and it can be influenced by both internal and external factors. A positive organisational climate can lead to high employee morale, engagement, and productivity. A negative climate can lead to low morale, disengagement, and turnover. 

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To assess, change or progress an organisation’s culture, the leadership team may decide to measure the current culture.

Often, this is done through a survey issued to employees. The survey typically includes questions about the organisation’s mission, vision, and values, leadership style, communication patterns, work environment, and overall strategy. The purpose of a culture survey is to identify the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of its culture and to develop strategies to improve it.  

However, this is not a straightforward or easy exercise and there are clear things to avoid. 

What to avoid when trying to measure organisational culture:

Asking leading questions: Leading questions can bias the results of the survey and skew the perception of the culture. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “a question that prompts or encourages the answer wanted.” It is important to use neutral and objective questions that do not suggest a particular response.  

Relying on one survey: A single survey may not provide a complete picture of an organisation’s culture. It is important to use multiple surveys or methods of data collection to validate the results. 

Assume one size fits all: Culture is unique to each organisation and cannot be compared to other organisations. It is important to design a survey that is specific to the organisation’s culture, values and goals. 

Ignore the context: The culture survey should be designed to consider the context of the organisation, including its size, industry and history. This will help to ensure that the survey results are relevant and actionable. 

Ignore the results: Once the survey is complete, it is important to act on the results. Ignoring the results can lead to cynicism and disengagement among employees and may further undermine the organisation’s culture. 

What should you do when conducting a culture survey for your organisation:

Set clear goals: Define the goals of the survey and what you hope to achieve by conducting it. This will help you design the survey questions and analyse the results effectively. 

Involve employees: Involve employees in the survey process by explaining why the survey is being conducted, how the results will be used and how their feedback will be kept confidential. This will help to build trust and increase employee engagement in the survey process. 

Ensure anonymity: Allowing people to respond to questions and provide openly requires the survey to be setup in a way that supports and maintains anonymity.  

Use a validated survey instrument: Use a validated survey instrument that has been tested and proven to be effective in measuring culture. This will help to ensure the survey is reliable and valid. 

Design the survey carefully: Design the survey questions to ensure they are clear, concise and unbiased. Use a combination of open-ended and closed-ended questions. 

Analyse the results: Analyse the survey results carefully. Look for patterns and themes that emerge. Use the results to identify areas where the culture can be improved and develop strategies to address those areas.  

Communicate the results: Communicate the survey results to employees and stakeholders in a clear and transparent manner. This will help to build trust and increase employee engagement in the culture improvement process. 

Act: Develop and implement strategies to improve the culture where necessary. Monitor the results of the culture improvement efforts and adjust as needed. 

Fundamentally when embarking on culture surveys it is important to stay curious. The survey should spark more questions than answers. When people give feedback, it provides more opportunities to engage with them to understand what their context is.  

Two people write on paper. Text on image says: conducting culture surveys

What is the difference between an engagement survey and a culture survey?

Engagement surveys and culture surveys are two distinct types of surveys used to measure various aspects of an organisation’s health. 

Engagement surveys measure the level of engagement and commitment that employees have to their work, their team and the organisation. An engagement survey typically includes questions about job satisfaction, employee motivation, communication, feedback, recognition and work-life balance.   

The purpose of an engagement survey is to identify areas where employees may be disengaged or disenchanted, and to develop strategies to improve their engagement. 

While engagement and culture are related, they are distinct concepts that require different approaches and strategies to improve. An organisation with a positive culture may still have disengaged employees and an organisation with highly engaged employees may still have a negative culture. Therefore, both engagement and culture surveys can be useful tools for improving organisational effectiveness and sustainability. 

Do culture surveys predict performance?

Culture surveys provide valuable insights around employee engagement, satisfaction, and well-being. However, it is important to note that culture surveys alone are not direct predictors of individual or team performance.  

As we know now, culture surveys typically assess factors such as values, beliefs, common behaviours, communication, collaboration, leadership, and employee morale. These factors can indirectly influence performance by affecting motivation, job satisfaction, and engagement.  

A positive and supportive organisational culture can contribute to higher morale and motivation, leading to improved performance. Conversely, a negative or toxic culture can have detrimental effects on employee performance and overall organisational outcomes. 

While culture surveys can help identify areas of improvement and provide a foundation for developing strategies to enhance organisational culture, they should be used in conjunction with other performance management tools and measures. Factors such as individual skills, capabilities, job fit, training, and external factors can also significantly impact performance. 

To accurately predict performance, organisations often rely on a combination of performance reviews, objective metrics, goal-setting processes, and ongoing feedback mechanisms. These methods provide a more comprehensive view of an individual or team’s performance and help identify areas for development and improvement. 

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Should my culture survey allow for benchmarking or non-benchmarking?

Let’s look at the pros and cons of benchmarking culture surveys, starting with the positives: 

Contextual Comparison: Benchmarking allows you to compare your survey results against industry or sector benchmarks. This provides a contextual understanding of how your organisation’s performance, culture, or employee satisfaction levels compare to other similar organisations. It helps you assess whether your results are above or below average and identify areas for improvement. 

Insights and Best Practices: Benchmarking surveys can provide valuable insights into best practices and successful strategies adopted by high-performing organisations. By comparing your results to those of top performers, you can learn from their approaches and implement proven practices in your own organisation. 

Setting Realistic Goals: Benchmark data can help you set realistic and achievable goals for your organisation. By understanding where the top performers stand, you can establish benchmarks as targets for your own performance. This helps in setting more informed and realistic goals that align with industry standards. 

Internal Performance Evaluation: Benchmarking surveys not only allow you to compare externally but also enable internal comparisons. You can analyse the survey results across different departments, teams, or locations within your organisation. This internal benchmarking helps identify variations in performance, culture, or employee satisfaction and enables you to address any disparities. 

Objective Performance Measurement: Benchmarking adds objectivity to performance measurement. By comparing your results against external benchmarks, you gain a more objective perspective on your organisation’s performance. It reduces the subjectivity that may arise from relying solely on internal measures.  

Stakeholder Communication: Benchmark data can be effectively used for communicating with stakeholders, such as executives, board members, investors, or employees. It provides tangible evidence of your organisation’s performance in relation to industry standards, making your communication more compelling and informative. 

Continuous Improvement: Benchmarking surveys facilitate a culture of continuous improvement. By regularly measuring and comparing your performance against benchmarks, you can identify gaps, track progress over time, and continuously strive for better results. It helps drive a focus on improvement and fosters a competitive spirit within the organisation. 

Here are some benefits of not using benchmarking surveys: 

Tailored Focus: Without benchmarking, you have the freedom to design surveys that specifically align with your organisation’s unique goals, culture, and objectives. This allows you to gather feedback and insights that are highly relevant and tailored to your specific needs, rather than being constrained by industry benchmarks. 

Flexibility and Creativity: Without benchmarking, you can explore innovative survey approaches and question designs that go beyond industry norms. This flexibility allows you to gather diverse and unconventional data that may uncover unique insights and opportunities for improvement within your organisation. 

Internal Benchmarking: In some cases, using internal benchmarks within your organisation can be more relevant and informative than relying on external benchmarks. By comparing results across different teams, departments, or time periods, you can identify internal best practices, variations, and areas that need attention without being limited to industry standards. 

Unique Differentiators: Not using benchmarking surveys allows you to focus on identifying and leveraging your organisation’s unique strengths and differentiators. Instead of conforming to industry averages, you can concentrate on enhancing your competitive advantage and establishing your own standards of excellence. 

Resource Flexibility: Conducting benchmarking surveys can be time-consuming and resource intensive. By not using benchmarking, you can allocate your resources towards other critical areas such as targeted research, internal initiatives, or data analysis that directly align with your organisational priorities. 

 Unique Organisational Context: Each organisation operates within a unique context shaped by its culture, strategy, and specific challenges. By not using benchmarking surveys, you can focus on understanding and addressing the specific needs and dynamics of your organisation, allowing for more nuanced and tailored interventions. 

Download our eBook and highlight common attributes you see in your organisation; this will give you an insight to the culture maturity your organisation has created.

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