Culture Diagnosis by Pulse or MRI?

Last month I had the privilege of attending the 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference in San Francisco, hosted by Human Synergistics. One of many reasons for me to take the 12-hour flight from Switzerland was to be in the company of thought leaders in workplace culture, such as Dr. Edgar Schein. Among the many insights he shared, one in particular struck a chord with me: the different methods of surveying for culture data. Dr. Schein described two-dimensional (2D), 3D and 4D views one can take when trying to understand a company’s culture. My experience is similar, and it prompted me to draw out the following analogy. 

A check of my pulse might suggest that I am a decent athlete, as I have a relatively slow heart rate. But an MRI would tell you that I am an orthopaedic surgeon’s walking retirement plan.

Much like a pulse check, many companies regularly use employee engagement surveys to gauge the mood of their organisation and take the results as a strong indicator of their overall ‘health’. One recent comment from a client was, “There was an uplift of 0.3 points in overall staff engagement versus two years ago, so we are clearly getting something right.” Yes, that could be inferred, but what are they getting right, and why? And importantly, what else could they be doing?

Pulse Benefits

Employee engagement, or pulse, surveys are a welcome addition to the toolkit of HR and Communications.  They do many things well:

  • Quantify the general mood among staff
  • Chart the directionality of key engagement indicators (up/down/stable)
  • Offer a consistent benchmarking tool
  • Are widely accepted and understood

But like taking my pulse, the engagement survey results are missing fundamental information that is necessary to truly understand the outcomes. They don’t tell us anything about how it feels to work at the company. We haven’t gained a clear picture of the culture, just a lens on the mood.

Pulse = Effect. Culture = Cause.

Staff engagement is what we see as a result of the company’s culture. It is cause and effect. The culture is the cause, and the engagement is the effect.

If I were to collapse after disembarking from a flight, a medical professional with better skills than a first-aider would be quick to realise that a lower pulse rate might be unrelated to whatever the deeper issue is that has caused me to collapse. In the same way, a pulse survey doesn’t tell us what the underlying drivers of the engagement levels are, only the level of general engagement.

If a company actions the findings from their pulse survey without looking deeper below the surface, they risk pulling on the wrong levers in their efforts to increase engagement.

What the company learned…

Clients often tell me about the results of their most recent employee engagement survey over the course of our first meetings. Back to the magic 0.3 uplift…

Employee Jo is answering the survey for the third time in five years:

  • Are you satisfied with your level of incentives?
    (on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is unsatisfied, and 5 is completely satisfied)
    Jo thinks: Yes, I am paid well and there are good pension and health benefits, so “4”…because I could always do with a bit more to compensate for the ‘drop everything and answer my email’ attitude of the boss.

What the company DIDN’T learn…
What has the company actually learned with this? And more importantly, what haven’t they been able to learn?

  • People think they are paid quite well (“4”), which means they must be happy, right?
    But Jo isn’t really satisfied; s/he takes the pay as compensation for the things that s/he misses out on. What Jo hasn’t been able to convey to the company is if s/he was heard more, or thanked more, the current pay would feel like a “5”.

Fundamentally, what we would want to know is, ‘Why does the employee feel that way?’

Measure the Culture

Fortunately, we can quantify and explain the culture and show a causal link to the outcomes (such as engagement), as well as uncover what is driving these outcomes. Using Human Synergistics’ Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) in place of the engagement surveys, I work with my clients to present the full picture—the MRI, as it were.

With the OCI® and OEI results, we would be able to see that Jo (and others) thought the following regarding incentives:

+ the appraisals are fair (to an average level)
+ you get a bigger bonus for doing your job well (more than average)
–  I can’t see how well I am doing in my job unless someone tells me (and usually they don’t)
–  you will be given a less desirable task to do if you make a mistake (more than average)
–  the goals I have to work towards are not jointly set by the boss and I1

We would also learn that the unwritten behavioural rules Jo (and others) feel are:

  • Compete more than cooperate
  • Avoid all mistakes and work long hours more than pursue self-set goals
  • Gain status and influence by being critical more than helping others grow2

And finally, that the outcome of all of this is:

  • Motivation and Satisfaction are just below average, but Intention To Stay is high, as is—unfortunately—Stress
  • The cooperation within the team is constructive, but outside the unit, it’s not good

Before you operate…

We have a much clearer picture of what Jo wanted to tell us. We have looked beyond the question of “is the heart beating?” and have run a full set of diagnostics.

So if pulse surveys do some things well, what does an OCI/OEI survey do better?

  • Quantify the general mood among staff and explain why they feel that way by analysing in detail 33 causal factors that lead to the way the company feels
  • Chart the directionality of key engagement indicators (up/down/stable) and quantify the behaviours (Constructive and Defensive) that are creating the culture
  • Offer a consistent benchmarking tool and benchmark results to an internationally normed, statistically meaningful dataset that recognises what a Constructive best-in-class outcome would look like, and what an Average would be
  • Are widely accepted and understood as the OCI is the most widely used culture measurement tool globally

Clearly, the MRI scan results are in. Right-o, I’m off to have coffee with Jo and see how things are.

In the meantime, what diagnostics do you use or request in order to see the full picture of your organisation’s well-being? I invite your sharing via the social media options below.


 Cooke, Robert A. (1995). Organizational Effectiveness Inventory. Plymouth MI: Human Synergistics.
2  Cooke, Robert A. and Lafferty, J. Clayton (1986). Organizational Culture Inventory. Plymouth MI: Human Synergistics.

About the Author

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Louisa Robb

Après 20 ans en tant que directeur financier international dans des postes expérimentés, y compris en tant que Président directeur général, DRH et Directeur de la Stratégie, Louisa a créé le cabinet de conseil spécialisé Lucella AG, basé en Suisse. L'ambition de Louisa est d'apporter une voix claire sur le sujet de la culture d’entreprise, et l'aventure individuelle d'un leader, en tirant parti des compétences qu'elle a affinées au long de sa carrière dans la finance et à travers le déploiement de l'outil de mesure de la culture d'organisation (OCI) et des outils individuels d'évaluation de Human Synergistics.