Two years ago, as we launched mwah., there was a few conversations we really wanted to have. One of the most important was a different conversation around Culture. Not a conversation about moving from 82% to 83% of some inane engagement survey, but one about things in culture that make a difference to how we work together, how we might work better together, and what we need to change so more people are not just invited to join us, but able and confident to do their best work.

What was wrong with the conversations on Culture?

They were oddly competitive and unhelpfully didn’t focus on things that matter.

What is the score this year? 81%. What was it last year? 79%. Up by 2% must mean we’re doing well and that, (minus a short ppt presentation), was the end of the conversation. Down by 2% and we’re into the ‘awkward questions’ area – “Who says they can’t speak up and why do they say it?” asked to a room full of people who gave that question 3 out of 10.

These conversations reminded those of us (of a particular age) of “The answer is 42”, even if we weren’t sure of the question. There was something bizarrely reassuring about boiling “culture” down to one number, even if it’s nonsensical.

What’s wrong with the conversation?

It was a conversation about numbers and ‘versus last year’.

What is culture?

Culture is the way we treat each other at work. It extends from our colleagues to our other business stakeholders (our customers, clients, suppliers, and partners). It’s how it feels to work here – what the water all around us is like, and tells us how we have to swim.

What was wrong with the ‘scoring’?

A lot!

There are the horror stories of “score 5 to stay alive” and myths and mysteries of leaders who filled in the survey for the whole team, to ensure they sat at the ‘the number’ (i.e., last year +1%). There’s the person who dared to raise some serious feedback and found their career curtailed.

Then, there was the cringe of ‘action planning’. “We have fifteen low scores and we’ll need to run a workshop to plan actions to address them”. Those actions will be themed, summarised and popped into ppt, so they can ‘cascade upwards’ to Senior Leaders and the Board – in secretly separate reports, given the different lenses they need, of course.

And then there’s the ‘scrubbing’ – where you remove all the feedback people actually need to hear, for fear of offending anyone.

Sorry to be a little harsh, but all of us have spent too many hours scrubbing and re-scrubbing Culture data to be bashful on this one any longer.

What’s wrong with scoring? Competitive. And therefore gameable.

What was wrong with the ‘conversations’?

A good conversation on culture goes deep.

Any culture can improve, be more aligned, create a better impact on people, need a course correction to bring it back on track. You never arrive.

A well-informed culture conversation is not about ‘winning’ or ‘punishing’ but about being open to the nuances that come with reflection – speaking freely and listening deeply.

Data is not competitive, but rather it is informative and formative for the conversation to be had.

What did we need to do to create better conversations?

Four things:

  1. A different understanding of Culture
  2. A simpler clearer language
  3. Non-competitive data
  4. Links to the future and what might be

The deeper understanding is a very different link to what matters to humans. Not fruit in the kitchen or knowledge of the company’s flexibility policy, but rather questions around purpose, relationships, and the agency to work your way.

A simpler clearer language allows more people to join the conversation. It isn’t a Senior Leadership conversation. It’s an everybody conversation, from the job applicant to frontline leader to the Board

Engagement and Net Promoter (NPS) are both highly competitive and famously ‘gameable’. We needed data that wasn’t identified as good or bad but provided a multi-dimensional picture of culture. A visual map to open the right questions.

We’ve moved from diversity to inclusion. Now we need to move to identity and Belonging. From commitment to contribution. From ‘engagement’ to confidence to participate.

Where did we look for foundation stones?

We needed to think differently, so we looked across the best research from the psychology of Belonging, psychology of Identity, the impact of identity on our sense of belonging, the economics of what it takes to be happy at work, and the possibility of growing Belonging by addressing culture.

What did we create?

A simple, non-gameable, set of questions, across continuums that form a visual culture map that tests alignment, purpose, and relationships.

That identifies culture and can map progress against wherever you want to take it. It can be used by an individual to assess alignment pre-joining, by a team to finetune the way they work, and by an organisation to understand culture, sub-cultures, alignment, and misalignment.

Where is it up to?

After two years of testing, learning, refining, listening and improving, we’ve landed on a simple tool that creates a mature conversation around culture.

And that’s the story of the Belonging Index. Where it came from at least.

Where it might go, or where it’s already going…well, if we judge how quickly this is already taking off, we may just be having a whole different conversation around culture before you know it.

Final Thought

Still wondering whether a new conversation is required? Reflect on this: almost every business who fronted the Financial Services Royal Commission had an engagement score in the 80%s.

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