Culture Benchmarks, or Real Culture Work?

We’re in a world full of data.

Every day, we capture millions of data points in our brains alone (let alone with an ounce of technology).

And we create schemas and mental models and heuristics to make sense of the information and process it into what matters.

Those models can keep us safe, speed things up; but also, can also cause biases, or tune us into the wrong things.

Ultimately, the data in the world is sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes just in existence.

Culture benchmarks are one of those data points that are ‘just in existence’.

As we mentioned in our recent podcast, Anais Nin’s quote “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are” is spot on, and Stephen Covey has further refined it in a way deeply relevant to this context.
“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are──or, as we are conditioned to see it.” Stephen Covey

Culture benchmarks are a schema in the corporate world that we’ve been conditioned to think matter. Now, like any other mental model, we are finding the shackles hard to break.

This article will concisely explore culture benchmarks vs. real culture work – and how you can get to the heart of what matters.

In our work with some of the most progressive organisations across Australia and the world, we are seeing them break away from culture benchmarks to truly understand culture as a complex system, involving their unique people, contexts, and cultures to build better organisations and communities.

A bit on Culture Benchmarks

The idea of benchmarks came from the chisel marks left in stone by the surveyors of yesteryear so they knew where to put a piece of angle rod to build something.

You can see why a management consultant picked up ‘survey benchmarks’ as a template to follow.

Yet, the idea of 2023 survey benchmarks have also been set in stone.

They are a form of 2023 Executive and Leadership conditioning.

We’ve come through a meandering, hopeless path of:

  • ‘5 to stay alive’ (perhaps tied to Exec Bonuses with a benchmark on this)
  • An average engagement score that was ‘best in breed’ on global benchmarks of 82 (yet a Banking Royal Commission) and
  • Top 3 and Bottom 3 scores
  • Many a yawn, cringe, and ‘oh no’ in the annual action planning meetings called as necessary by leaders in Australian corporates

There is a moment of psychology in all of this. The concept of ‘comparison of others’, me compared to them is real. But, who cares. Why can’t we just see how we are, and what matters here?

At the heart of it all, you need to decide.

  1. Do you want to build a great and sustainable culture, that can make it through changes and cycles and challenges; or
  2. A culture that no one gives a shit about?

If you are in the latter, stay with your benchmarks – and good luck to you. We’re ready when you come around.

But, if you’re ready to build a great and sustainable culture – it is going to be a tad harder, you’ll need to put in the work, and you might just need to sit and listen.

At the risk of sounding like an HSC student (from the late 1990s), culture is absolutely about the journey, and not just a destination.

What does Real Culture Work look like?

Real culture work does care about data and insights.

But it is not about benchmarks, or winning or losing – those things drive people to simply play the game.

And the game is no longer about understanding culture and what matters, but simply working to the outcome the organisation wants.

Culture is not a winning or losing score, it needs to go beyond ‘a number’ and into the complex human system that it is.

So, to do real culture work, you need to:

  • Know who is in the team – individually, collectively, in aggregate.
  • Know the elements of culture that matter – their purpose, relationships, agency, connection, belonging, accountabilities.
  • Know the landscape – consider the complex social systems that exist, the context, the nuances.
  • Consider stories and perspectives of the past – what has been informative?
  • Consider your aspiration – what will get you to the future
  • Find the balance between the past and the future – never start from a blank sheet, it’s not possible, nor useful
  • What’s the right mindset to get you there?
  • How will you uphold culture? And how will you decisively reset things that go against it?

As you can see, culture benchmarks are a blunt instrument of conditioning; a schema we find tough to break in corporate life.

To do real culture work is harder, but inherently more valuable.

And better yet, once people see that you are genuine, and want to know what’s important to them, people will want to do it with you.