The Vagueness of Vibe: Is Culture Really Too Intangible to Measure?

May 26, 2015 by Stacey Barr

Culture is a word we use to describe the interplay of values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours within a group of people. In organisations, workplace culture is one of the hardest things to measure. But we want to measure it, because we want to influence it.

team of happy workers

You get the vibe of a culture when you walk around a workplace. That vibe is an inner sense you develop from the sensory data you collect – both within and outside of your awareness – as you observe that workplace.

You can’t measure what you can’t observe or detect in the physical world. Culture seems so intangible, and yet we all know we can observe or detect attributes of a culture in the physical world. If we couldn’t observe or detect it, how else could we know that a culture needs to change?

Culture can be gauged by observable or detectable manifestations in the workplace.

The manifestations of the strong safety culture in a mining corporation are:

  • visitor safety briefing
  • matter-of-fact staff guidance on safe practice, like holding the hand rail when taking the stairs
  • starting meetings with an unprompted safety observation or message
  • signs and posters that demonstrate safe work habits

The manifestations of a disempowered culture in a government department are:

  • slouching at desks
  • hearing “yeah, but…” as the response to any suggestion of improvement
  • volumes of reports and briefing documents before an idea can be tabled
  • absence of spontaneous dialogue between people at different ranks

Describe the manifestations of culture before you try to design measures of it.

Essentially, culture becomes measurable when you can describe the specific manifestations of that culture. The measures are really just quantifications of the degree or amount of those manifestations that happen.

You can describe the manifestations of culture because:

  • You can see body language like eye contact, posture, speed of movement, amount of movement, type of movement.
  • You can hear what people are saying, how they’re saying it, who they’re saying it to, and where they’re saying it.
  • You can touch and feel artefacts like posters, documents, office partitions, furniture and space.

The attributes of culture are observable and detectable. And that makes culture measurable.

Will the measures be a perfect encapsulation of the culture?

Of course not! No measure is a perfect encapsulation of the thing it monitors. But we don’t need perfect information to make better decisions. We can measure the attributes of culture we want to change, and still learn enough to guide the changes we should make.

The real challenge is figuring out how to do the observing and detecting of those attributes of culture in an objective way. Good performance measures need objective data (not perfect data, though). And that’s a topic for another post.


What are the manifestations of the culture in your organisaton? What adjectives would you give to describe the culture those manifestations suggest?


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  1. Tom G says:

    Another great post Stacey; thank you.

    Culture can be tricky; I believe the real danger for management, in most cases, is going straight at it. Most of the instances I have seen is where companies have tried to mandate a culture or build it directly and it becomes a “fix that fails” taking the company further away from where they want to be.

    In your example of safety above, I can see that is an example that can be led directly; how about in the example of “freedom to fail.” This requires building success through momentum and actually demonstrating willingness to experiment and not hit all the desired objectives. We tell people to go out and risk and then set objectives that are so easy that there is no risk in them so I don’t look bad. Or management buddies up next to successful projects and feigns ignorance of the less successful. Or if we reward failure where a learning process was not followed and it was failure for failures sake to make a show of the principle instead of a guided, purposeful effort. These are mixed signals that make the attempt at culture change feel like “flavor of the month management.” Sadly this has resulted in schisms between management who say that the staff just don’t get “it” and staff blaming management for bad business practices. I love what Deming said in many of his 14 Principles: Drop XYZ; substitute leadership. My current president says that you cannot give what you do not have; a wonderful thought on working on yourself to get what you want in the environment and acknowledges that there are real skills and understanding required to create change.

    I postulate that the first condition necessary for successful culture change is that the cultural principle and supporting methods must be the result of sound business practices. Trying to fix a bad business design by affecting the culture is just more ingredients in a bad casserole; it will not get better. I have some examples of spectacular failures but will spare you.

    The second condition for successful culture change is that management understands what they are trying to do, why they are trying to do it, and that they have a strategy that anticipates negative outcomes and how they will learn from them to reinforce the cultural principle. The first measure should be a demonstration of Management engagement in the cultural principle and that it should typically be aimed at influencing the culture instead of going straight at it.

    My thoughts – open to yours.

  2. Kristian says:

    The term culture has a far too broad definition to warrant measuring in any serious. I have found that defining a new ‘desired’ culture through incremental changes is far more efficient. If you know what is needed just work towards that objective. If you pay attention, consult and engage carefully then you should be able to get to grips with any friction points before they become serious. Aristotle described this exceptionally well but Cohen paraphrases better : “Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act” – Leonard Cohen.

  3. Nice post! I especially like (and appreciate) the reminder that measures don’t fully encapsulate anything. Measures are indicators and therefore tools to give insight to the health, progress, or performance of something. So, in that sense, culture (as vague and large as it is) can be “measured” – as in you can use indicators to gain insight to the nature of your particular culture and how that culture is changing.

    We discount culture too often because it’s difficult to grasp. The other problem is that management too often tries to change it (liking Tom G’s comment) – when really leadership should try to understand it and then work “with” it to make change happen.

  4. Colin Harlow says:

    Top down leadership regarding the maintenance of a safety culture is, as I see it, important. However, if that leadership isn’t there and is in fact generally looked upon negatively by the workforce, it’s a huge challenge to try and create a safety or learning culture from within.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      It is. It’s why leadership is a set of unique capabilities, and rising through the ranks isn’t the way they are acquired. Leadership can be the biggest bottleneck and constraint on change in organisations. So sometimes, there’s no hope for the rest of us to make change happen and stick. In that case, all we can do is better prepare the next tranche of leaders rising through the ranks.

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