An Opportunity at Hand, Seize the Day: Measuring and Shifting Culture

Part Two of a Three-Part Series

In Part One of this three-part series, we discussed how the workplace and organizational culture need to shift to attract and retain workers as we move on from the pandemic. We described how culture is a force-multiplier in building a workplace where employees will be motivated to innovate, achieve, and remain with an employer–effectively responding to the “Great Resignation” challenges. Further, we established the case for a culture that promotes four conditions that encourage intrinsic motivation: Meaningful Condition, Learning Condition, Human Condition, and Autonomous Condition. Organizations that develop a culture that supports these Conditions will have a competitive edge in attracting and retaining employees and promoting the teamwork, inclusion, and innovation necessary to execute strategy.

Here, in Part Two, we will address the question, “Can an organization measure how its culture encourages and reinforces behaviors that promote the conditions mentioned above?” Secondly, we will provide an overview of the fundamental principles behind the strategy we have used to help several organizations shift their culture and improve performance. 

Understanding Behavior

Fortunately, we can measure culture, especially in terms of the behaviors that are being promoted across the enterprise. Our diagnostic tool of choice is the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) from Human Synergistics International, which enables us to measure an organization’s current operating culture and define an optimal culture to help it meet its strategic challenges.1 In addition to using the OCI across a broad spectrum of companies, we have facilitated or conducted over 7000 interviews with North American and European employees from all organizational levels inquiring into what produces their “Best, Most Effective, and Safest” work experiences. We have discovered that the behavioral norms, actions, and conditions driving intrinsic motivation, high achievement, engagement, and innovation can be measured and fall within the OCI’s Constructive Styles. The OCI provides a clear image and behavioral landscape of an organization’s culture. 

In addition to understanding which behaviors are expected and rewarded across the organization, it is essential to understand the effectiveness of its core HR, strategic-planning and goal-setting, and communication systems. Additionally, insights into employees’ understanding and commitment to the organization’s direction and the degree to which they can influence team goals and their work are essential in crafting a culture and work environment that will be attractive and engaging. The quality of people systems, the characteristics of jobs, the clarity of (and members’ commitment to) goals, and participative structures contribute to the overall employee experience and provide organizational levers for improving culture.

Can these levers be measured? Yes, they can.

The Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) is an effective tool for measuring the climatic factors that determine organizational effectiveness.2 Additionally, correlative data from the OEI and OCI provide insight into which of these factors contribute to, and can be used as levers to change  behavioral norms across the organization. 

Executives can administer the Current form of the OCI to develop a clear and tangible picture of the behaviors being promoted within their organizations—more specifically, the relative degree to which Constructive rather than Defensive behaviors are expected. They can use the Ideal form of the OCI to create a tangible picture of the optimal behaviors that will support strategy execution and a culture that will attract and retain employees. Adding the OEI, leaders will round out the data necessary for developing plans to shift, strengthen, and/or reinforce a culture that will help create an engaging, inclusive, innovative, and high-achievement work environment.  

Shifting Culture

The data gained in an initial organizational culture assessment provides an understanding of the current operating culture, the optimal culture required to succeed, the climatic factors that can be used to shift culture, and a basis to measure progress.

Next, we will explore the fundamental principles behind our change strategies to help organizations act on these data, shift culture, and improve performance. 

These five principles are essential in crafting a culture change improvement effort. They are listed in order of importance.

  1. Executive Sponsorship
  2. Integrating Culture Change with Organizational Performance Improvement
  3. Leadership Behavioral Alignment and Skill Development
  4. Employee Involvement
  5. Aligning HR, Goal Setting, and Communication Systems

1. Executive Sponsorship

Most importantly, strong Senior Executive sponsorship and personal involvement are necessary to achieve a culture shift. Culture change is a long-term strategic endeavor that requires: a significant commitment of executives’ time; commitment to funding over several years; a willingness to address difficult leadership personnel decisions; and personal investment in openly shifting one’s behavior. Lacking this type of sponsorship, organizations best not pursue a culture shift, as it will likely be unsuccessful.

Some executives want to believe an embedded culture can be made to shift in a short period of several quarters. That is not the case. First, an executive cannot force a culture to shift without taking actions that could potentially drive a fear-based culture. However, they can facilitate a positive shift in culture through engagement of the employees in solving problems with a different approach that reflects the desired culture. Second, short of the near-death of the organization, it can take several years to unfreeze and shift an embedded organizational culture and then several more years to reinforce the emerging culture. Shifting a well-rooted culture requires a commitment to a 5-to-7-year process or more. Fortunately, depending on the breadth of the investment executives are willing to make, they will likely see significant progress and organizational performance improvement in the first two years. Finally, for culture change to be successful, it needs to be integrated with organizational improvement efforts directly linked to vision and strategy. This strategic linkage, sponsorship of the culture change effort, and oversight of the change process are the responsibility of (and are under the control of) executive leadership.

2. Integrate Changing Culture with Organizational Performance Improvement

Pursuing a change effort focused singularly on shifting culture seldom produces a lasting culture change. Typically, culture is defined as how we approach solving organizational challenges, how we carry out our work, and how we treat people. When leaders shift their approach to engaging and treating employees positively as they solve business challenges, it sends a strong message about “how we do things around here.” When that change in approach produces the desired business outcomes and is reinforced over time, employees adopt the new approach going forward. Solving business challenges intrinsically motivates people to engage in the culture change effort, and achievement strengthens the new approaches. Additionally, improvements in organizational performance provide executives justification for the investment required to plan and facilitate the culture shift.

Integrating culture change with organizational performance improvement leads us back to the first principle – Executive Sponsorship. Executives need to define and prioritize strategically important performance challenges or opportunities that become the focus of the new approaches to problem solving. Additionally, they need to define and set clear expectations for the approaches they want to use going forward and then visibly model the way. As the preferred approach to address performance gaps and new business opportunities is adopted, executives need to provide sponsorship, support, cover, and visible rewards for those who take the lead and participate in pioneering the “new” way.

For our clients who have achieved significant shifts in culture and organizational performance, the strategic challenges have focused on such issues as safety, reliability, costs, quality, and attracting workers. Some have realized a shift from bottom fourth quartile industrial or nuclear safety to top first quartile performance. Others have moved from the fourth quartile to top decile performance in reliability while keeping customer costs lower than the average costs of their peer groups. Manufacturing customers have achieved significant improvements in manufacturing quality and efficiency as they created a work environment that provided them a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining workers. In each of these cases, the long-term commitment and support from the most senior executive provided the necessary direction and motivation to achieve organizational performance improvement and a culture shift.

3. Leadership Behavioral Alignment and Skill Development

Culture change needs to begin with a behavioral shift across the executive team and then cascade down to upper, middle, and frontline leaders. Typically, leaders who have risen to the top positions have either participated in creating the current culture or have learned to use the operating culture to enhance their success. In either case, these leaders have an unconscious or, for many, a conscious vested interest in maintaining the current culture. This vested interest presents the most significant challenge to executives who wish to pursue a shift in their operating culture. When initiating a culture change, the first focus of the Sponsoring Executive(s) is to align personal behaviors with the Constructive styles, becoming a role model for the rest of the leaders. The more transparent executives are in changing individual behaviors and building skills to lead differently, the more credibility they will have in the eyes of other leaders and the employees.

Once the Sponsoring Executives are on a journey to align behavior and build skills, they need to quickly engage the entire executive and senior leadership team in a behavioral and skill development process. The executives need courage and tenacity to motivate changes among the upper and middle-level leaders and provide accountability for those who resist or move too slowly in making personal change. 

Given that what leaders role model, teach, and reinforce are the most impactful drivers of culture change, successful change initiatives need to include extensive leadership development. 

The leadership development process needs to be immersive and completed in a short time frame—months, not years. An intense, immersive, and contracted development process creates the energy required to unlock the current culture’s grip on the senior leadership team, enabling them to adopt, promote, and model the new culture effectively. Employees watch how the most senior executive treats other senior and middle managers, taking cues about how safe it is to engage and adopt the desired culture. The Executive leader also needs to respectfully support senior team members who elect to opt out of their leadership roles rather than make the necessary changes. And through respectful accountability measures, the executive will need to remove the leaders who resist or move too slowly in making the required changes in their behaviors. Failure to act quickly in addressing senior leaders who are not aligned with the desired culture is a sure way to undermine change efforts and make it difficult to recover and reengage a workforce in pursuit of the optimal culture. 

Our typical culture change efforts include leadership development processes that focus on understanding and shifting behavioral patterns, including changing how leaders approach their core leadership responsibilities. Developing skills to manage people differently, coaching for behavior change, and engaging employees in innovating solutions to organization challenges are integrated with modules to help shift behavior. It’s essential to have leaders immediately apply their new behavioral approaches and skills to engage employees in improving organizational performance aligned with the strategy laid out by the executives. The immediate application effectively demonstrates how the “new way” of working results in success, reinforcing the desired Constructive culture

Our development programs utilize two behavioral-based tools from the Human Synergistics’ suite of instruments to help leaders understand and shift their personal behavioral and thinking patterns and leadership approaches. Initial leadership development programs incorporate the Life Styles Inventory™ (LSI) to help leaders see how their behavioral styles align with the same 12 norms the OCI utilizes to assess the current culture and define the optimal culture. Together, the OCI and LSI provide an integrated platform and language for exploring, discussing, and aligning personal behavior and culture. 

Once the leaders are on a development path to shift behaviors, we utilize the Leadership/Impact® (L/I) or Management/Impact (M/I) surveys to give each of them feedback in three areas: their overall leadership effectiveness; the behaviors (approaches) they use to fulfill their core leadership responsibilities; and the behaviors they motivate on the part of their associates and teams.4, 5 The Impact surveys provided team-based data that shows leaders the degree to which their approach to leadership drives employee behaviors that perpetuate the current culture or promote the desired culture. 

The information generated by the Impact surveys are invaluable in two ways throughout culture change efforts. First, the Impact surveys provide data that help leaders create individual plans to shift the approach they use to manage people and address business challenges—reinforcing a primary driver of culture change. Second, teams are the underlying social groupings in which culture forms and transformation begins. The overall organizational culture will follow when a critical mass of teams shifts their approach to solving business challenges and achieving success. The Impact surveys show the types of behaviors that are being motivated and exhibited within each leader’s team. When leaders change their approach to their responsibilities and apply the changes to address challenges, parallel changes evolve in their team members’ behaviors and interactions. Reinforcing the transition and using the new approaches across a critical mass of teams result in organizational culture change.

The initial administration of the LSI and Impact surveys provides a baseline for the leaders, helping them fine-tune their development plans. Further, it helps them target shortcomings in their effectiveness and gaps in how they approach specific leadership responsibilities. The Impact surveys provide data about where in the organization there are leadership skills and knowledge gaps, allowing for more targeted leadership development programs. Periodically administering the LSI and Impact surveys throughout a culture change effort provides valuable feedback on each leader’s progress and helps to refine further leadership development efforts.

4. Employee Engagement

Our case studies (coming soon in Part Three) make a clear case that a change in organizational culture is achieved when a critical mass of members shift their approach to solving business challenges or capturing new opportunities. Leaders facilitate this change by using new and different approaches to involve their employees in improving organizational performance. Therefore, successful culture change is dependent on, first, gaining employee engagement in the effort and, ultimately, their shift in behaviors used in the course of carrying out their work and interacting with each other. It is important to note that employees are intrinsically motivated to make a difference, achieve, and learn. When leaders create a safe environment for employees to engage in the culture change effort and focus on solving organizational challenges, they tap into this intrinsic motivation, increasing the likelihood of achieving the desired culture. 

Depending on the strength of the current culture, employees may elect to engage in a new approach to achieving success quickly, or they may become defensive, creating barriers to achieving the desired culture. The OCI not only shows whether culture norms are Constructive or Defensive but also the intensity or strength of the culture in terms of the agreement (or lack thereof) among members with respect to what’s expected. Low intensity (weak) cultures allow for a broader variance in employee behavior, and employees are generally more open to trying new approaches to their work. It is more challenging to motivate employee behavioral changes in moderately or strongly embedded cultures. 

We have achieved success in strong, deeply embedded cultures when deploying organization-wide employee development programs by “unfreezing” the frontline from the current culture and engaging them in shifting the culture. Our programs have achieved success when the employee engagement and development sessions focus primarily on four areas at the team/department level: building a vision; facilitating activities to help employees let go of the past; increasing awareness of current personal behavioral pattern; and immediate engaging employees in closing performance gaps or capitalizing on new team- or department-level opportunities. 

Vision – Sharing and then engaging employees in further development of a team or department vision provides them with a tangible picture of the desired business goals and the expected behaviors to be used in pursuit of the future. Additionally, vision building provides employees motivation for engaging in activities to improve the business and shift the culture.

Letting Go – Employees will be reluctant to engage in visioning or activities to shift the culture if the impacts of the past culture are not acknowledged. Facilitating a letting go of the past includes recognizing the effects of the past culture and an invitation to try different approaches for accomplishing work going forward. Having a chance to articulate and receive acknowledgment of the emotional impacts experienced from the past culture and seeing new possibilities helps employees let go and engage in creating the future. Beware, this type of activity requires unwavering executive sponsorship and the participation of leaders with significant emotional intelligence. 

Behavioral Awareness – Focusing on behaviors and creating personalized plans during employee development and engagement programs provides the basis for a new approach to work and solving problems. Here we use the Life Styles Inventory to create awareness of individual behavioral patterns and help facilitate behavioral change across frontline workers. The LSI includes data that assists the employees in seeing their behavioral patterns and creating an action plan to shift and align behaviors. Further, the feedback report and guide provide a common language to discuss workplace behaviors and, ultimately, organizational culture. 

Immediate Application to Improving Performance – The fourth area is where culture change manifests itself. Culture change begins to take hold when employees are engaged to apply their learning immediately—to develop behavioral action plans and design team/department performance improvement activities that are aligned with organizational strategy. Engaging employees in solving problems that help meet organizational goals is critical to realizing the desired culture change. Such change is further supported by leaders’ providing immediate and ongoing reinforcement of the new approaches in problem solving.

5. Align HR, Goal Setting, and Communication Systems and Structures

Over time the culture influences and is influenced by human resource management, goal setting, and communications systems and structures. The systems, structures, and culture continuously harmonize to perpetuate the status quo. Once executives have defined the desired culture and engaged the workforce in behavioral change and performance improvement efforts, they need to align the organization’s systems (e.g., performance appraisal and reward systems) and structures (e.g., employee involvement) to facilitate and support the desired state rather than perpetuate the current culture. Misaligned systems and structures create obstacles that employees must overcome as they pursue a different approach to achieving organizational goals. These barriers will wear employees down as they engage in the change effort, resulting in many of them giving up on pursuing the desired culture. Worse yet, it contributes to cynicism and skepticism, jeopardizing their future commitment to engaging in change efforts.

Aligning the systems begins with understanding how the current systems support or undermine the preferred culture. As discussed above, we administer the OEI–a “climate” survey fully integrated with the OCI. The feedback creates a seamless picture of the current culture and the drivers shaping the culture—which can be shared with employees at the department or team level. OEI reports for subunits provides data on how organizational structures, systems, social technologies, and skills shape the current culture (and possibly the subcultures) of departments. Change teams can identify which of these levers need to be modified locally to support the desired culture. With the information provided by the OEI, executives can sponsor change efforts across the organization to align the systems and structures that will promote the desired culture. 

In our experience, we have seen executives limit their culture change efforts to shifting systems and structure, and doing so only from the top, resulting in little or no change in the underlying culture. The adage that the culture eats strategy for lunch applies here as well. The current culture can render changes in systems and structures ineffective, creating confusion and adding to employee cynicism. It is best to use an open systems approach, integrating systems and structure changes at all levels of the organization with strategy, performance improvement, leadership development, behavioral change, and employee engagement. Strong, long-term executive sponsorship and oversight are necessary to achieve this required level of integration, significantly enhancing a successful outcome.

Moving Forward

Seldom have leaders been provided an inflection point at which they can boost their performance and create a high-performance culture that will attract and retain the talent required to succeed. If your leadership team would like to delineate key next steps to embark on a development journey, we invite you to try out two unique programs as conversation openers: the OCI-Ideal Preview or the Culture Mirror™. The Preview will allow you to experience a subset of questions from the widely respected OCI-Ideal and receive an abbreviated feedback report (complimentary). The goal of the Culture Mirror is to help leaders leverage the pandemic crisis and/or its aftermath for learning opportunities on where improvements can be made. They can do so using the OCI-Ideal Preview for real-time feedback to reflect, measure, and refine plans now to adapt and emerge with success. Feel free to contact us through Human Synergistics—we are accredited practitioners in their suite of assessments. Or contact us directly at Ephektiv.

Longing for the past or maintaining the status quo will contribute to an ineffective reactive response to where organizations are as they transition through today’s challenges. Checkout Part Three that will showcase the impact leaders can have. The chance to act and strategically create the future is upon us. Carpe diem!



1 Cooke, R. A. & Lafferty, J. C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory®. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

2 Cooke, R. A. (1995). Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®. Arlington Heights, IL: Human Synergistics/Center for Applied Research

3 Lafferty, J. C. (1973). Life Styles Inventory™. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

4 Cooke, R. A. (1996). Leadership/Impact® (L/I). Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

5 Szumal, J. L. & Cooke, R. A. (2008). Management/Impact®. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics International.

About the Author

Avatar photo
Madeline Marquardt

Madeline Marquardt, President of Ephektiv, Inc., is a business consultant, trainer, and entrepreneur. For over thirty years, Madeline has focused on assisting national and international clients to manage systemic change, clarify strategic direction, complete structural redesign, transform culture, develop executives and leaders, improve inclusive diversity, and strengthen employee engagement. She has worked collaboratively with nuclear power industry leaders to define an optimal culture for nuclear power plants and has served on various nuclear safety culture oversight boards. She has helped leaders in the U.S., Canada, and Europe develop and implement long-term initiatives to transform performance through culture change, leadership development, and employee engagement.