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Andrew Loveless

Pecan Partnership


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How to know if your culture needs work

We know that workplace culture has a defining impact on strategy delivery, but how do you know if your culture is hindering performance so much that it needs investment and focus? Is an engagement survey enough to read the signs?
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When organisations decide to prioritise their culture, it is often triggered by one of two alarm bells: 

  • External: eg, customer feedback and retention, a serious complaint, a new competitor, a regulator review
  • Internal: eg, low engagement scores, staff attrition, a serious grievance or whistle-blowing incident 

The problem with prioritising culture in response to a crisis is that by the time these measures start to show ‘red’, the culture is already in problem territory and poor behaviours are engrained.

It is much wiser to keep reviewing and investing in your culture as an ongoing board agenda item. It’s always easier to deal with something before it becomes a big problem. 

Think of your organisation as a car – if you keep driving it without servicing it, it becomes less efficient and more expensive to run. Eventually, things start to wear out. I may break down and could potentially be dangerous – to the driver, passengers or other people on the road.

So how do you create appetite to invest in your culture before it becomes an obvious problem? 

The thing that really gets traction is linking various data points to culture and then to its impact on commercial and organisational success. Not always easy but always enlightening. This requires pulling together and making connections between a mixture of hard and soft indicators.  

There are two common pitfalls in getting to the root causes

Hard data vs soft indicators

Most organisations these days can access a wide range of data about their customers and people. 

However, to diagnose and get under the skin of culture requires paying attention to ‘soft’ indicators too, which are often difficult to measure or not measured at all.    

Let’s unpack an example situation:

Hard data Soft indicators
Engagement scores are low Motivation and energy seem low
Higher rate of attrition in the first 6 months as compared to other functions Innovation is slow or non-existent
Customer feedback is generally okay Other departments have frustrations in dealing with this department
Productivity is just below similar teams Staff don’t generally speak up in company meetings


What’s going on here? What cultural factors may be causing this situation?  

We can all hypothesise but at this point, it’s really important to get to the root causes and guard against making assumptions.

Understanding root causes

There are two common pitfalls in getting to the root causes:

  • assumption bias – we believe we know why the problem is occurring, but can be  misguided and so we end up with a poor diagnosis and mistargeted solutions
  • a lack of joined-up thinking across the organisation – everyone is busy in their silo and looking at things through their lens, so the whole picture is not revealed

Our example situation may be caused by a number of things like a relationship with the line manager (most common), lack of/ poor/ inconsistent communication, processes that don’t work well, limited teamwork and relationships with other functions.

Dig a little deeper and there may be other cultural issues that are less obvious. Lack of meaningful work, feeling like you don’t have a voice, perceived lack of opportunity for development and advancement for example.  

A good engagement survey should flag some of these but it won’t fully convey the personal stories and emotional content. This needs to be explored via good old-fashioned dialogue via one-to-ones and/ or focus groups. 

Quantifying the commercial impact

Firstly, what is the cost of attrition in our example? How much is being spent on recruiting and training new people? Quantify, track and share this cost, it will form part of your business case for culture development.  

Then there is the productivity cost of new joiners getting up to speed. In many organisations, it can take at least six months for a new joiner to make their full contribution.

Next to explore is how much more productive people would be if they were fully engaged.  This needs to be understood not just in terms of work outputs but the incremental value from energy, innovation and ownership.  

Regarding the customer experience, can we quantify the missed opportunity cost of ‘okay’?  How much difference is made when the customer experience is good or great? How much longer do customers stay? How much more do they buy? How many referrals do they make?

On productivity, there are usually people who consistently outperform their peers and it’s worth investigating this – they seem to be finding a way to make it work. Is it a skill thing? Is it a mindset thing? What can we learn from them that we can share with others? 

Expectations are clear and set realistically

Getting the diagnosis right is crucial

One of the questions I promised to answer here was ‘Is an engagement survey enough to read the signs?’

The simple answer is no.  

Not on its own. It will highlight some signs but won’t provide enough information on which to confidently build culture development. 

Having designed, conducted and presented survey results to many executive teams here are our most common pitfalls to avoid: 

  • Treating the survey as the ‘be all and end all’
  • Cramming everything into the survey
  • Skipping over the positives, all focus on the negatives
  • Being defensive/ justifying/ ‘explaining away’ negatives
  • Searching for who said what
  • Mis-representing the data
  • Over-analysing the data 
  • Not sharing the findings with everyone
  • Delaying action on recommendations

Any decent survey will provide a starting point, and a map of the territory and should highlight areas for further exploration. This exploration should be done with curiosity, and involve lots of listening and great questions to get to the root causes. It is often easier to get unbiased external help for this.  

Once you get to the point of truly understanding the issues and the potential impact, then culture interventions can be scoped and designed and a business case can be developed.  

Doing this groundwork will set up the ideal conditions for successful culture development:

  • The culture diagnosis is correct
  • Culture interventions are relevant and designed fit for purpose
  • Confidence is strong
  • Expectations are clear and set realistically
  • Targeted business benefits are tracked and shared


Interested in this topic? Read Nine qualities of cultural intelligence

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Andrew Loveless


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