Is Culture Really Too Intangible to Measure?

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.

People in the shape of a fingerprint. Credit: DigitalStorm

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 is like a fingerprint; individual and complex.

Not every organisation needs to work on all possible dimensions of culture. There are too many, and the following are only a sample:

  • safety
  • collaboration
  • innovation
  • performance-orientation
  • customer centricity
  • diversity and inclusion

Which dimension you focus on will depend on what is strategically important to your organisation right now. It’s a decision you can’t overlook, because generic measures of culture are next to useless:

“Like a corporate fingerprint, your culture won’t be the same as someone else’s. The type of culture you want to create will be dictated by your unique business imperatives.” – Carolyn Taylor

The first step to find meaningful measures of culture is to decide what dimension of culture is the most strategically important to improve now.

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

Many authors of culture measurement rightly say that we can’t directly measure the feelings, assumptions and beliefs people have about culture (Carolyn Taylor, Nicola Shield). We can only measure what we can observe. So it’s useful to think of measuring culture as an exercise in measuring the difference between how we want people to behave and how they actually do behave:

“I define culture as the day-to-day behavior of your people. If we can define, with real clarity, the day-to-day behaviors that most drive success in your organization, and we can get your people to do those behaviors far more consistently, then it’s a small logical step to conclude that you’re going to be more successful. So the key then is to measure how much more consistently we are, or are not, behaving in accordance with the culture we’re trying to drive.” –

For example, the behaviours of the strong safety culture in a mining corporation might be:

  • every visitor receives a safety briefing
  • employees guide their companions on safe practice, like holding the hand rail when taking the stairs
  • meetings start with an unprompted safety observation or message from any participant

As another example, the behaviours of a collaborative culture in a government department might be:

  • project teams consist of employees from different divisions (‘across the silos’)
  • people practice active listening (like saying “tell me more…” as the response to any suggestion of improvement)
  • there is spontaneous dialogue between people at different ranks

The second step to find meaningful measures of culture is to articulate a concise collection of the behaviours that most convincingly define the dimension of culture you’re focused on improving.

Describe the culture-defining behaviours clearly and specifically before you try to measure.

Essentially, culture becomes measurable when you can describe the specific behaviours in measurable language, just like we should with goals. The measures are really just quantifications of the degree or amount of those behaviours that happen.

You can describe the observable behaviours of culture because:

  • You can see what people are doing, how they’re doing it, who they’re doing it with, where they’re doing it.
  • 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 the things that people have created, like posters, documents, office partitions, furniture and space.

The attributes of culture are observable and detectable. And that makes culture measurable. So avoid the weasel words and use sensory language instead, to describe each culture-defining behaviour.

“To find an organization’s unique metrics, you need to pay close attention to what’s happening around you. Notice where the energy and motion are, and find ways to track positive outcomes that will encourage others to pay attention and join in. This would be an impossibility with an external, one-size-fits-all culture yardstick.” – strategy+business

The third step to find meaningful measures of culture is to express each culture-defining behaviour in clear and specific and observable (measurable) language.

Design measures of culture-defining behaviours that balance perception with observation.

There’s usually more than one way to quantify a result you want, because there’s often more than one form of evidence that might convince you the result is happening. We see this all the time with the Measure Design technique we use. Even though we aim to have just one direct measure of any result, most of the time we end up with two or three companion measures for a single result, to get enough KPI acuity.

The same goes for those culture-defining behaviours. They can be quantified in different ways, like these:

  • People reporting on their perceptions about the organisation’s practice of those behaviours in general, using a rating scale for frequency (like this one), giving a measure of the form ‘average level of frequency that employees believe our organisation practices [behaviour]’
  • People reporting on their own personal practice of those behaviours, using a rating scale for frequency, giving a measure of the form ‘average level of frequency that employees report they practice [behaviour]’
  • Direct observation and quantification of the incidence of those behaviours, such as keeping a tally of visitors that arrive versus visitors undertaking a safety briefing, giving a measure of the form ‘percentage of visitors who received a safety briefing’

The first two above would be based on data collected by a bespoke survey consisting of questions designed around your list of culture-defining behaviours. The third would be based on using a technique like Measure Design and identifying the specific data needed for the non-survey based measures you chose.

The fourth step to find meaningful measures of culture is to design specific measures that quantify both perceptions and direct observations of the culture-defining behaviours.

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 to accompany your objective and quantitative culture measures, some well-designed qualitative evidence of culture will help give a richer context. Qualitative data is basically non-numerical, like words, videos and images. You can categorise it to make it quasi-numerical or you can apply other qualitative analysis methods to draw out the strongest themes.

The final step to find meaningful measures of culture is to balance them with qualitative evidence, and use both to decide the next best thing to do to improve the culture.

Culture is as unique as a fingerprint, so its measurement needs to be tailored to how each organisation defines the culture they want.
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What are the culture-defining behaviours most strategically important in your organisation? How are you measuring them?

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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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