The Common Ground of Qualitative and Quantitative Culture Development Approaches (Part Two)

Robert Cooke & Edgar Schein Discussion

This is the second post from a discussion between Professor Edgar Schein, arguably the #1 workplace culture expert in the world and a strong critic of culture surveys, and Dr. Robert A. Cooke, creator of the most widely used organizational culture assessment in the world. The discussion resulted in 12 key areas of common ground across qualitative and quantitative culture assessment and development approaches.  See the first post for specific comments regarding insights #1-6:

  1. Leaders must start by being clear about the business problem or purpose of their change effort.
  2. A culture survey may be useful under the right circumstances and will only measure some aspects of the culture.
  3. The client should make the decision on whether to use a survey or not.
  4. Leaders should give assurance the feedback will be shared and acted upon.
  5. A team should be engaged to help identify how the survey will be set-up and used.
  6. Only survey as part of a broader change effort which also includes qualitative approaches.

This post covers insights #7 – 12, including Ed and Rob’s overall reaction to the substantial common ground that exists. These insights should help leaders, consultants, and others to more effectively manage change efforts.

#7 – Survey benchmarks should be derived from performance data research

Edgar Schein: I think what I see is terrible in some surveys. A recent one in particular…the rating scale is 1-5 and in the feedback on each dimension the group gets where it is [on the rating scale]. I noticed on each of these dimensions there’s a little green line. The little green line says above this you’re okay, below this you got a problem. I asked the people who designed this survey ‘Where did the decision where to put that green line come from?’ And the answer was ‘we’ve looked at a lot of groups and that seems to be where it falls.’ Now that to me is scientifically corrupt. To put a green line in there and say to a poor client who doesn’t know from nothing that above this he’s okay and below it he’s bad. When you don’t have good hard data…in that industry, from 100 companies, the ones who score above this do better than the ones [gestures below]. They didn’t have that data. They just arbitrarily put in a line. Would you agree that really is irresponsible to tell people ‘good or bad’ without some other criteria?

Robert Cooke: I’m going to agree because that is very irresponsible, very questionable, misleading. It is unfortunate. I’ve seen surveys like that as well and I’ve asked similar questions. We, on some of our surveys, and a number of my colleagues, on their surveys, do have benchmarks. The ones I respect are derived from very good performance data… One of the things we’ve done…is to provide at least two types of benchmarks on certain of our surveys. One is just the historical average or the median along a scale…but the other is this true benchmark where you’re comparing yourself to, for example, effective organizations measured along certain criteria. And, you know, invariably if the survey is working, there’s some distance between that historical average and that benchmark.

#8 – Leaders need to think about how major decisions will impact the culture.

Edgar Schein: One example in medicine is when the profession decides to implement computer systems for doctors. This is an engineering decision and a strategic decision which has enormous positive and negative impact on workplace culture. Or, at the very same time that the organization is trying to improve its relationship to employees, it also has to do a layoff for executive reasons. …The potential for misalignment of the engineering decision and the executive decision and the employee culture is what I see a lot of in organizations. They don’t see the connection between redesign, financial issues, and what you would call the whole workplace culture… So my executive culture is really just the very top people who make these big decisions…but they have an impact on everybody.

Robert Cooke: Executives and managers…make decisions all the time about technologies being implemented, new initiatives within the organization, adjustments in the strategy, and also about systems: accounting systems, performance appraisal systems, reward systems. What they do is make those decisions without considering the impact on culture. So they’ll go for a new technology and it has no relation to their espoused values, maybe, even their assumptions about how things really work, the norms they would like to have in place. Or they’ll go for a new performance appraisal system that will maybe solve some problems around immediate performance, but run completely counter to their values around cooperation and teamwork. I think what happens is that [this type of] disconnect really points towards one of the most important mechanisms for sustained and meaningful changes in culture: That is, if you and a consultant can get the decision makers, even the managers and supervisors at lower levels, to think in terms of the implications for culture of these… relatively routine decisions they are making on a day-to-day basis, they’ll be able to have a more positive, more constructive culture.

#9 – Surveys need to be utilized in a sensitive and human way instead of being bureaucratic and impersonal instruments.

Edgar Schein: I have something very odd to say to you. You come across to me as much more of a humanist than someone who works primarily with surveys would be assumed to be. I think surveys tend to be scientific, bureaucratic instruments and to hear you talk about perpetually thinking about improvement and constructive is a level of humanism that I don’t normally see in survey type people—which I find very encouraging.

Robert Cooke: Well thank you… I noted, as we were talking earlier, I had certain doubts about surveys and they were partly in reference directly to culture. My professors and others did not particularly feel that culture could easily be measured by surveys—Edward Hall for example… I worry that surveys can be somewhat insensitive and somewhat impersonal, and maybe dehumanizing. On our conceptual framework one of the norms and one of the values is humanistic-encouraging and that value, as part of our [gestures circular] framework, reminds me all the time that we need to think and do business in a way that respects people and is humanistic.

#10 – Surveys can be a wonderful tracking tool to understand progress over the long-term.

Edgar Schein: It’s a wonderful tracking tool, ask the same questions over time and it’s very important data. So I’ve always valued that… I presume that’s an important element in the clients that you work with—to see changes.

Robert Cooke: It is, it really is. It’s one of the things that we really love to do. More generally, I gave a presentation in Australia focusing on why we’re interested in surveys, in particular, culture surveys, and how we think they can have an impact. The whole theme of the presentation was that a good survey, a good culture, or a good change program can help you achieve your mission and can move you toward realizing the purpose of the organization. If you do that right, and if your mission is a meaningful one, everything else will be okay, you’ll make money. You’ll have enough resources to sustain and grow the business, and it will work out. It doesn’t work, I don’t believe, the other way around. I don’t think that having the goal of making a profit leads to the attainment of the mission.

#11 – Share the survey results back with the people that completed it. Support them as it informs their efforts to solve problems and make improvements.

Edgar Schein: I have a bias toward what Doug McGregor way long ago said: Accountants, when they go down and find something wrong, instead of reporting it up the ladder to the chief of accounting, should immediately tell the group what they found. So I have a very strong bias toward developing a system of the data coming back to the people who produced it as quickly as possible and with facilitators saying ‘what can we do about this?’ Because what I discovered with the DEC [Digital Equipment Corporation] case is at least half of what people complain about they could fix, without management intervention at all. They just hadn’t realized that they were doing stuff that didn’t make sense. And then a few things that had to be fed up [the hierarchy], they decided you know what to do with it. But the power of giving the people their own data in my mind is incredible, so I would go that route every time.

Robert Cooke: It’s actually one of the original impetuses for survey feedback at the University of Michigan. People like Rensis Likert and David Bowers were collecting all this data on organizations for research purposes and they started thinking…you know what, we should return these data to the people who generated them so they can use the data to solve some problems, make some improvements, etc. My dissertation was actually on that… I hypothesized that the more you return data to people at lower levels of the organization (so they can work on the data to solve problems and make decisions and send some of it upward), the more useful the data were going to be. Actually it was shown in an experimental design with a number of schools that when you got the faculty involved directly in interpreting survey data, they did an awfully good job of using the data to solve problems. Many of the problems…were under their control, the solutions were conducive to being implemented by the faculty members themselves. Yes, others had to be referred upward, but at least they could be referred.

#12 – It is possible to combine qualitative and quantitative culture development approaches effectively to help organizations improve.

Edgar Schein: I’m very encouraged and in fact blown away by the degree of agreement. I think it’s fabulous that we have a way of thinking about surveys, since they’re here to stay, in a way that integrates with change programs, surveys as interventions. The word culture I think has to be seen as a bit of it may change. When we think ’If I’m going to do a culture survey, I’m going to change the culture,’ that’s a misunderstanding. I need the survey for diagnostic purposes, but what I’m actually going to change is probably a few things where most of the culture either will stay the same or will actually help me make the changes.

Robert Cooke: I’m almost blown away as well. I think we’ve been very careful to define things and that has helped tremendously. I’m a big believer in triangulation; I really don’t see surveys being used on their own. You’ve got to bring in other methods—particularly qualitative methods—that complement the numbers. I think this has been a great conversation and a great start and I really appreciate it. Moving forward, to have the kind of impact on the proper way to go about dealing with culture—defining it, measuring it, and changing it—we should pay more attention to how we can combine the two methods and create synergies. I can think of many examples where we need inquiry when our surveys are being used. We know people can specifically come back a year later to assumptions they were making that were not really properly defined when they entered into the change process. Just the method, how you would do that, I think requires a lot of thought and a lot of specification. It could be very valuable combining the methods.

Final Thoughts

Culture has become a subject of interest from board rooms to the front lines of most organizations. The ambiguity and confusion surrounding culture will eventually subside.  A great deal of common ground was evident in this discussion and it may cut across insights from other culture experts as well. While it’s difficult for most leaders to commit the time necessary to understand how culture works, the results of this discussion should help and it’s definitely worth the investment of time to understand culture fundamentals from the top experts in this field.

New Announcement – We’ll be holding the 1st Annual Ultimate Culture Conference on September 29 at Willis Tower (Sears Tower) in Chicago.  Edgar Schein, Robert Cooke, Linda Sharkey, and many other culture experts and leaders will share their insights.  Watch this site and for more details about this amazing event soon.

See the full video from this discussion below (covering blog post part 1 and part 2).

About the Author

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Tim Kuppler

Faculty Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and former Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field where he led collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society. Currently with the Compass culture division of the staffing powerhouse, Insight Global, Tim authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm and is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Tim's 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts.