I took part in a small discussion on a Linkedin thread which ended up with me being on a live talking about culture. The question presented was, can you quantify culture? The provocative poll, hooked me in immediately, of course basic data isn’t going to give you what you need to understand it. The poll had responses such as measuring attrition, CEO interventions etc. I believe the reductionist approach strips away the nuances and meaning in culture. It lacks context, and context is critical.

Should you measure culture?

Absolutely, you should measure culture in a way that is right for your organisation. I work in the civil service, and we use a method of inquiry to understand the lived experiences of our people. Through this we build themes, and trace these back to the annual survey (don’t get me started on the annual survey!) This provides qualitative and quantitative date. Sample size is equally important, I ask for representation across the grades and mix of areas. What we notice after a series of workshops, the themes start to repeat. This brings me to the concept of fractals.

Fractals – A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems – the pictures of Chaos.

I bring this up because what I notice in one part of the organisation is repeated across the organisation, yes there will be nuances but some aspects will be shared across the  organisation broadly. This will determine at what level do you wish to measure the organisation at. If you are looking at overall patterns then a representative sample is needed. If you want nuances then you will need to look deeper.

What do you pay attention to when looking at culture?

To be honest, I pay attention to following:

  • Language – how do people talk about the work and themselves?
  • Activity – do people talk about stuff vs doing the work? This does link to the amount of meetings, but context is important here.
  • Relationships – what is the quality of the interactions between people?

For me, culture is about what happens in the between spaces, not about the individual behaviours. If you want to know about culture, focus on how people are with each other. A look into culture is about what works and what needs to be improved. 

Culture is not a thing by itself there are two parts the formal and informal elements.

The formal: The organisational chart, policies, processes, how the work is actually done, corporate values. This is the stuff you get in the induction pack when you first join.

The informal: what the organisation spends most of it time doing, how it rewards people, what people talk about when no-one is listening, how decisions are made. This is the stuff you pick up in the organisation, and the vibes you get.


Ed Schein talks about three levels of culture:

  • Behaviours and norms
  • Values
  • Underlying assumptions (unconscious)

The behaviours can have a down stream impact to the unconscious and the unconscious can have an upstream impact on the behaviours. It can be influenced in a number of ways.

There are so many ways of looking at culture, the possibilities are endless!

Is culture at the organisation level?

I have heard many people talk about culture only being at team level. I don’t agree with this, culture appears across all levels of the organisation. What we experience at team level will be different, but there will be a common narrative across the organisation. Let’s not forget the impact of leaders, they shape the culture and determine what is acceptable or not. This could be interesting depending on the leadership, they too are open to influence of power.

What about corporate values?

For me there is a huge disconnect between corporate values and what actually happens in organisations. I see the corporate values as projections of what the organisation lacks so, if a value of the organisation is they want ‘Challenge’ I feel this is an aspiration and a shadow in their organisation. This causes great disruption in hiring people like me, who are provocative and are enticed by the values and then disappointed by the experience. As far as I am concerned, though we like artefacts, corporate values are not worth the paper they are printed on!

Do you benchmark or baseline?

This was an interesting question, and as an executive coach I wonder why we don’t tell people to benchmark themselves against the people they admire? Well, because it will make them feel crap, and they are not the same people! The same applies to organisations culture (and design!), stop looking outside your organisation for answer and start looking inside. I believe that organisations have the capability and resources to solve their own problems.

Dynamics of culture – can you change?

This question wasn’t really answered, can you change culture? In my view no, but you can influence and nudge culture. Culture is in our head, it is the story we tell ourselves and each other about our organisation. What is most interesting is that we have our own story, and we see the organisation through this. There is bias and distortion at an individual level, can you see how complex this is getting? As much as it is in our heads, I classify culture as a living system after all we are the organisation. Organisations are not alive, the people give it life. Like people, organisations are open to influence.

Once you baseline culture, how do you work with it?

Classic mistake that I see is for the leadership to come up with everything, we are asking executives to work with a vague concept and do something, that can be scary. Culture is a wicked problem.

A wicked problem is a social or cultural issue or concern that is difficult to explain and inherently impossible to solve.

Culture doesn’t need to be ‘fixed’ there is no solution (just like people don’t need to be fixed), but there are opportunities for health, and it can be small. Smaller actions are easy, offer traction and you can see immediate results compared to long-winded programmes. For example; if you have a problem with collaboration, offer a space for people to meet other teams, learn what they do, have a virtual coffee and see what happens. By the way all of this is a massive experiment, we don’t know what really happens, but we can speculate. The other things CEO/CHRO’s so is fantasize about programmes solving big issues, if they put enough time and effort into it will change, this is not always the case. Brian Evje made a great comment on working with people are interested and motivated in making the changes or doing things differently.

Can you measure culture?

Going back to measuring culture, what I want to add is like most living systems we cannot measure everything. They are the mysteries of life, like does free will really exist? The organisation to me functions like we do, it has personality, preferences, power and it exercises them. There are hidden parts of the culture which are like untapped potential, and using numbers to quantify them will not work, even annual surveys don’t surface them. They can be accessed through open inquiry accessing the lived experience of what actually happens, with examples. This only gives us what employees are prepared to share. It doesn’t surface concepts like shame, which does exist in organisations.

The perceived gap – leadership and employees

I notice in my line of work a gap between what the leadership think and what actually happens at the employee level. I know that there are many theories which can account for this, I think impression management has a lot to offer. We try to cover up what really happens to make the leaders believe we are in control or handling things, this perspective over time can get potentially distorted over time. I have a nifty way of measuring the gap and I believe there are different levels of distortion, denial or avoidance, such as:

  • Do they know about the problem?
  • What are the symptoms of the issue?
  • Do they believe they can solve it?

I take leaders and employees and pinpoint the places where they are and what needs to be done to bridge the gap.

We talked about how culture is and can be used to maintain the status quo in the organisation, it is good enough. There is no real benefit for leadership, it includes more work if anything. Organisations like homeo stasis. Change consumes precious energy. Does there need to be a burning platform for people and organisations to change?

We need vulnerability……no we need resilience?

This beautiful dilemma that we can only be one thing, this is a dysfunction in my view. What organisations are looking for is the ability to integrate both aspect and use them in a contextually appropriate way. We need both in our lives, the acceptance of raw vulnerability can be exposing and must be dealt with care. As Leila Moret pointed out how can you be vulnerable without being resilient, it takes strength and courage to bring your vulnerability.

I should also add, do we need to be vulnerable? What does exposing ourselves provide, if there is a specific issue then there is a need, if the organisation are fine then leave it at that.

The need to belong vs culture?

Take what I said about values (being a projection of what they lack), and throw into the context of recruiting, unless the organisation is living and breathing their values hiring this way could cause issues when it comes to belonging. If you hire people who exude these, and they are not lived in the organisation then new hires will not experience the sense of belonging they expected.

We over emphasise belonging in organisational context, because in every organisation there is a price we pay for belonging. When the price is too high for us, we leave. There are parts of us we might sacrifice in order to belong. Like the aspect of vulnerability and resilience, we have a need to connect with people and a need to protect our individuality. They can often be at two ends of a spectrum, but it is the ability to integrate both and seek balance that is helpful. Some organisations are better for us than others, it’s about figuring out what works for you.

What allows people to flourish in an organisation, if organisations are living systems?

I think Natasha Ouslis articulated this brilliantly:

Belong – Yes some attachment psychologically is important, even if you don’t connect with the organisation as a whole but feel like you belong to the team, this is enough for you to grow.

Feel competent/Mastery – Challenge and stimulation are critical this is one of our fundamental needs, and this doesn’t  need to be in work. People have boring jobs but amazing hobbies, whatever works for you.

Autonomy – yes being able to get on and do things the way you want to without someone hanging over you, or telling you exactly how to do your job is important. To me this links to trust but can also breed creativity in an organisation.

Purpose – You have to believe in what you are doing and it needs to be meaningful. We all want to make an impact small or big it doesn’t matter.

Do we only see culture during a high stress environment?

Different organisations manage stress in different ways, some actually come into their own in times of crises while others may struggle. We need to take this into account, also what it does it simply amplifies or suppresses part of their existing culture. As Nico Blier-Silverstri says they show more of they really are, and I believe this to be true.

Micro cultures – should they be nourished?

Yes, they should. There are going to be some teams which have a unique culture to serve how they work, if we stripped that away what negative effect would that have?

A mistake that CEOs and Heads of make are this notion that we need consistency, no you don’t. People are irrational and we are not consistent, plus consistency is boring! Nuance and difference adds rich colour and texture to the culture, this is important. As Elena Valentine said, if you are looking at a global organisation national culture and customs will form part of the culture in that particular location. If a company has an office in the US and in Japan they will not be the same, they are influenced by their national culture, local talent markets, employment laws and so on.

This is a download based on last week’s discussion, my view is not the only view and we all have different ways of looking at culture which work for us and our clients. If you managed to make this far, then thank you for taking time and hope that it provides some food for thought.

Huge thanks to Hung Lee and Recruiting Brainfood for my debut, look forward to more discussions on this fabulous topic!


Nims is an Organisational Design and Development consultant at the MOD, she also freelances and supports SMEs. She is an executive coach and a trainee transactional analyst in the field of organisations. 

Connect with me on LinkedIn