If recent news about the counterproductive corporate cultures at WeWork, Uber, Wells Fargo, and Lululemon are any indication, perhaps it’s time you took a step back and invested in truly understanding your organization’s corporate culture.

Corporate culture comprises the beliefs, values, and behaviors that determine how an organization’s management and personnel interact with one another in-house and conduct business outside the organization.

Your Culture is Your Brand

While some organizations have healthy, thriving cultures, many organizations are dysfunctional as a result of having a toxic culture. Symptoms of a toxic culture include the following:

  • Micromanagement
  • Frequent miscommunication
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Rampant rumors/gossip
  • High turnover
  • Palpable tension
  • Unethical or questionable business practices
  • Harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Little to no innovation, high resistance to change
  • Low risk tolerance and constant need for reassurance
  • Little or no collaboration
  • Exhaustion

If you notice any of these symptoms of a toxic culture in your organization or you have a gut feeling that the people in your organization are not achieving their full potential as a group, having your organization’s corporate culture analyzed can provide insight into what is wrong and what needs to be done to fix it.

If you are interested in understanding your organization’s corporate culture, avoid doing it yourself — I encourage you to hire a third party to perform the evaluation. A qualified third party conducts an objective assessment, ensuring employees feel as though they can be more open in sharing their experiences and insights.

What to Expect from a Corporate Culture Analysis 

When I perform a cultural analysis, I rarely tie it to a specific problem, issue, or desired change. Instead, I approach it as a “state of the union” address describing the organization’s existing culture in sufficient detail to give the board or company CEO a “peek under the hood.”

Although some corporate culture analysts believe culture is best assessed through a combination of individual and group interviews, I conduct individual interviews exclusively and guarantee confidentiality. This approach gives participants the freedom and assurance to open up and share their experiences and insights. In a group setting, participants often are afraid to speak up or they just go along with the consensus. When different levels of an organization’s leadership gather in one room, fear of vulnerability skyrockets, and getting real, honest feedback is nearly impossible.

I usually learn the most about a culture when something surprises and puzzles me, so I encourage the people I interview to engage in the same exercise. For example, I may ask about their reaction to something they were told, or they observed and challenge them to ask themselveswhat I often ask myself, “Why did I react that way? Why is this person’s behavior so puzzling? What does it say about me?” I subscribe to Socrates’ advice: know thyself. Culture lives within the members of the organization, and this exercise is the preeminent way to expose the culture within and get to know it.

I also poll employees to help identify the heroes and outlaws of the organization:

  • Heroes are individuals or groups respected by a large number of individuals in the organization because they embody group values.
  • Outlaws are individuals who buck the system yet remain valued members of the organization; for example, employees in one firm identified a young man as the outlaw who “didn’t follow the rules” but increased revenues by thinking outside the box.

In addition to collecting feedback from the organization’s staff, I walk around and watch; sit in on meetings and try to be a “stranger” as much as possible (the parameters always agreed upon with the CEO in advance). Observation is the most important part of the corporate culture assessment. Nearly every area in an organization provides insight into its corporate culture, including:

  • Parking
  • Security
  • Front desk
  • Waiting room
  • Offices and cubicles
  • Break rooms, conference rooms, and training rooms
  • Workspaces
  • Common areas

As I tour these areas, I also note the following:

  • The physical layout of the organization’s building and workspaces
  • Office and cubicle sizes and arrangement
  • Whether workspaces are populated with personal items or not
  • Whether office doors aremostly open or shut
  • Photographs, awards, and other wall hangings
  • What people wear
  • Whether people work mostly alone or in groups
  • Diversity of race, age, gender, and dress
  • Signage

I also spend time carefully reviewing the following:

  • Written materials:
    • Mission/vision statement
    • Annual report
    • Newsletter
    • Website
    • Bulletin boards
    • Employee handbook
    • Email transmissions
    • Transcripts of speeches
    • Social media
    • Memos affirmative action/diversity statement
    • Employee orientation
    • Materials or videos
  • Symbols, stories, language (including non-verbal), and metaphors.
  • Rituals (acting out of values), such as meetings, informal office gatherings, award ceremonies, organizational practices and procedures, coffee room talk, and corporate humor. (For example, I once attended a company’s annual Christmas party on boarda chartered boat, during which I was able to glean significant insight about the company’s corporate culture.)
  • Informal rules: The types of behaviors that are encouraged or discouraged (think of the cultural difference between a church and a for-profit organization).
  • Communication style: Text, email, phone, hallway discussion, screaming over cubicle dividers, etc. You can also look at this as oral/interpersonal; written/formal documentation; electronic.
  • Historical knowledge of the firm’s purpose, founders, and so on. (In strong cultures, history is often told and retold.)
  • External environment: For example, whether the organization is located in a big city or small town, whether local values are traditional or cutting edge, whether the municipality is prosperous or struggling.

Implementing Cultural Change

A cultural analysis report contains a large volume of detailed observations, statements about those discoveries, and recommendations for addressing or resolving key issues. Recommendations rarely call for an extensive cultural overhaul; changing the culture is often a matter of changing one or two underlying assumptions.

The cultural analysis report may or may not lead to a change in an organization’s culture. It is only the first step toward change. Whether a change in corporate culture happens relies heavily on the leadership’s willingness to own the process and outcomes. Changes are recommended as part of the report, but it is up to the client to implement those changes.

The next step, if the client and analyst/coach agree, is to establish clear change objectives. Without clear change objectives, the process wanders aimlessly and is often seen as boring and pointless by the group. With change objectives in place, the coach can then work with the organization’s leaders to implement the necessary changes and provide a follow-up review to ensure that objectives and the desired outcomeshave been achieved.


About the Author: Jan Moorad, a former Deloitte management consultant and Major League Baseball team partner, is a Newport Beach, Calif.-based executive coach who helps C-Suite executives and their spouses pursue and achieve personal and professional fulfillment.