Are Surveys Enough When Assessing Your Culture?
A culture assessment is the examination of shared beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in the workplace. It is how a group of individuals view the application of policies, process, procedures, treatment from leadership and workplace interactions. Culture assessments use a qualitative and quantitative approach to find what is working, what is not working and what is missing. At TIVC, our cultural assessments follow a very specific methodology that begins with a survey.
What is the purpose of a survey?
Surveys should be used as “a check engine light.” In a car, the check engine light advises the driver there is an issue and that further investigation is warranted. Similarly, preliminary survey results do not tell us what root causes may exist but that further investigation may be needed. Surveys are not tools to determine that a culture or an individual is toxic.
How organizations sometimes use surveys and how surveys should be used
A common trend we see is the use of survey, generic climate assessment or initial culture assessment results being used in lieu of investigating workplace misconduct. Assessment results used in this way are, at best, a blunt instrument because results are an unfinished work. Experts in this field know that surveys and initial assessment results tell an incomplete story. The surveys and initial assessment results might tell us the “what,” but they do not tell us the “why.” Surveys should be used to point experts in the right direction to begin to get to the “why.” Understanding the “why” requires an investigatory process that includes focus groups, interviews, observations and a review of records, policies, procedures and reports. This process is required to evaluate the alignment between, people, policies and procedures and gain a complete understanding of organizational culture. Getting to the “why” ultimately leads to positive culture sustainability.
When organizations confuse survey results with performance related outcomes
What happens when surveys and initial assessment results are misused to explain an employee dismissal? This misuse creates association bias, where organizations and individuals associate the tool with real issues within the organization. The use of the right language to explain the reason for workplace dismissal should not include survey results, poor climate or bad culture.
Surveys and initial assessment results alone should not result in employee dismissal. However, unprincipled leadership, lack of accountability and irredeemable bias, prejudice and discrimination should.
A hostile work environment, a demonstrated lack of leadership and accountability issues are examples of appropriate terms to use for discipline or termination. Because when an organization uses the surveys and initial assessment results as a reason for dismissal, the organization becomes victim-focused, tying the survey to the reason for termination. The cause of an employee dismissal should be focused on the employee’s actions and not the culture as it was revealed in the survey.
Organizations that address performance issues early in their occurrence and provide opportunities for deficient employees to learn and grow do not fire employees, but eventually the employees may fire themselves by persisting in toxic behavior detrimental to the culture of the organization. Surveys and initial assessment results are merely the toxic behavior’s effect and should not be the cause of dismissal.
Daniel, T. A., & Metcalf, G. S. (2015). Crossing the line: An examination of toxic leadership in the US Army. The Leadership Quarterly, 32(1), 118-227.
Davis Winkie and Meghann Myers, 2021, Top Army Spokesperson suspended after abysmal climate survey. https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2021/09/22/top-army-spokesperson-suspended-after-abysmal-climate-survey/.
Erickson, A., Shaw, B., Murray, J., & Branch, S. (2015). Destructive leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 4(44), 266-272.
Jared Serbu, 2020, Army fires, disciplines 14 leaders for failed command climate at Fort Hood. https://federalnewsnetwork.com/army/2020/12/army-fires-disciplines-14-leaders-for-failed-command-climate-at-fort-hood/.
Reed, G. E. (2015). Tarnished: Toxic leadership in the US military. U of Nebraska Press.
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