Assessing Organizational Culture

Sometimes it’s hard to define the culture of an organization. People who work there often have difficulty articulating specifics and even leaders can find it challenging to identify the elements of a company’s culture; this in spite of the fact that their own beliefs and behaviors create it.

Because, consciously or subconsciously, leaders create workplace culture.

Thomas Kell and Gregory T. Carrott[1] found “that employees who work for the same corporation, no matter what their jobs, are 30% more likely to exhibit similar leadership competencies—defined as the way a person learns, deduces, envisions, engages, and executes—than people who do the same job but who work in different companies.”

In other words, over time, the leadership style exhibited at the top will become the leadership style adopted throughout. And the culture generated by that leadership style will become the predominant organizational culture. In a sense, the organization takes on the personality of its leadership.

Why Does Culture Matter?

For something so nebulous, corporate culture has a surprisingly powerful effect on everyone it touches. Visitors, customers, suppliers, front line staff, managers and executives: all are profoundly impacted by corporate culture. In as much as organizations are made up of people, it should come as no surprise that culture’s impact on people also translates into a direct impact on success.

The 2013 Culture and Change Management Survey (PWC) of over 2,200 global business leaders found that:[2]

  • 84% believe culture is critical to business success;
  • 60% believe culture is more important than business strategy or operating model; and yet
  • 51% think a major overhaul is currently needed in their culture.

Culture Happens

The challenge with corporate culture is that it happens, for better or for worse, and regardless of intent. That’s why it makes sense to understand your culture and make sure it’s supporting the vision and objectives of the company; while appropriately reflecting the company’s core values and beliefs. If you’re ready to be more proactive about assessing your corporate culture, here are two approaches that might help.

Competing Values Framework

One model for assessing corporate culture is the Competing Values Framework and the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) developed by Cameron and Quinn.  By analyzing a list of thirty-nine organizational effectiveness indicators, Cameron and Quinn identified two key dimensions:

  • Internal focus and integration vs External focus and differentiation
  • Stability and control vs Flexibility and discretion

Using these dimensions as the axes, they mapped out four quadrants representing four cultures emerging from variations along these two dimensions:

Using this assessment tool, the leaders of an organization gain a better understanding of current organizational culture, while also gathering input on how the current culture differs from the desired culture. You’ll find more information about the online OCAI and the Competing Values Framework here.  A paper version of the OCAI can also be downloaded from the University of Iowa here.

Culture Survey

Another way to assess organizational is culture is by asking questions that probe into the underlying beliefs and behaviors that make an organization tick.  A culture study (or culture survey) of this nature is not simply an employee opinion or satisfaction survey. Calibra Leadership (formerly the Center for Organizational Effectiveness)[3] offers the following chart to help differentiate between a culture study and an employee opinion survey.

Culture Study

Opinion Survey

Purpose To provide a description of the organization along various dimensions as input to managerial decision making


To assess the quality or adequacy of organizational policies, practices, procedures, and routines


Use of Findings Inform strategy—do the organizational characteristics fit the business strategy? Improve practice—How can we make our operations more effective?
Focus of Study Attributes or characteristics

Drivers of behavior

Deeply rooted beliefs, values and norms

Underlying variables

Individual attitudes and satisfaction

Perceptions of organizational practices

Surface variables

Type of Data Patterns, connections, fit between data

Where the organization is on a continuum (e.g., conservative/innovative, responsive/slow)

Levels of variables, ratings

The effectiveness of communication (excellent/poor); satisfaction with pay (satisfied/dissatisfied)

Typical Items Measured Autonomy


Openness to change



Social relations

Organizational controls



Managerial behavior


Goal clarity

Career opportunities


In addition to asking questions such as:

  • What does it take to be successful in this organization?
  • What does the workplace “feel” like?
  • Who is talking to whom (and who isn’t?)
  • How do people interact?
  • What stories do people tell about the organization or its “heroes?”
  • How are customers, suppliers and other external stakeholders treated?
  • What ceremonies are celebrated?
  • Are there “rites of passage”? If so, what do they celebrate?
  • What social activities exist? Are they well attended?

A complete culture study would also review physical space, internal and external documents, company events, company policies, etc. to determine:

  • What values are communicated internally and externally?
  • Which behaviors are reinforced and rewarded?
  • Which behaviors face negative consequences?
  • The presence of gaps and/or  contradictions demonstrated by the above.

There are a lot of good reasons to focus on culture at work. More and more, people are looking to engage in meaningful work. They are holding out for positions in companies that demonstrate values they support and then exemplify those values through a congruent culture. Companies that focus on creating a strong culture attract talent. They also outperform financially.[4] Cultivating the right culture for your organization can take time and effort, but the return on investment enriches both the workplace and the bottom line.


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[1] Culture Matters Most. Harvard Business Review

[3] Leverage Company Culture as a Competitive Advantage

[4] Eric Flamholtz, University of California at Los Angele. Corporate Culture and the Bottom Line

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