To Really Know Your Culture, Become a Detective

As an HR leader, it’s often your responsibility to address cultural issues in your organization. Yet how do you fully understand — much less change — something in which you are fully immersed each day?

Addressing the culture of your organization can be done more effectively when you’re able to mentally step outside and look at it objectively. This distance gives you perspective; it allows you to more clearly say, “If I wasn’t part of this cultural dynamic, what would I observe?” This question lies at the heart of becoming your company’s “cultural detective.”

Let’s think about what skills make a good detective. Not only are effective detectives observant, but they must also be self-aware (to keep their own inherent biases from interfering with their investigations), curious (willing to follow a question’s natural thread back to a source), and good listeners. Emulating these same traits will allow you to unlock — and decipher — your organization’s culture.

Listen like a detective

Let’s explore this last point first. If a detective asks a question but isn’t fully invested in listening to the answer — including seeing that answer from the perspective of the person responding — he or she is likely to miss information — observations, data, or a point of view — that could be key to solving the case. The same is true for you as a cultural detective: If you are not a skilled listener, your observational skills and curiosity can only take you so far.

When I work with clients, I make a point to emphasize this. Listening is one of the keys to understanding your current culture and implementing the changes it needs to become brilliant. If we don’t listen well, we can’t communicate well; we can’t self-reflect, and we can’t strategize. Listening is also the basis of empathy, design, growth, and learning. If we can’t listen well, we really can’t do much at all.

As an HR leader, you are uniquely positioned to truly listen to a cross-section of your organization and hear what those around you are willing to tell you. As a cultural detective, put yourself in their shoes. Consider their perspectives and see your workplace through their eyes.

Broaden your observations

As a cultural detective, observe how people interact in meetings, what they discuss during informal conversations, and what their body language shares. Watch for patterns of behavior in groups that shed light on how your culture operates. For instance, which meetings are productive and which aren’t? What are people comfortable and uncomfortable expressing? Why might they be uncomfortable expressing a particular opinion, experience, or belief? What does that discomfort say about the larger cultural system? Similarly, what are they passionate about and why?

As you practice your observation skills, you may be surprised what you are able to learn about your organization’s culture, just as a detective may unlock larger truths by careful, objective observation.

Check your self-awareness

Heightened self-awareness is a key to cultivating effective cultural objectivity. Take the time to examine your own biases. We are each a collection of experiences and attitudes, and they shape how we see the people around us, including how we listen to others and how much stock we put in what they tell us. Be aware of how your own view of a person or situation may color your ability to see other perspectives or the reality of what’s occurring.

For instance, if we label someone as a complainer, then we are likely to regard his or her viewpoint as less relevant, when the person may have important feedback to share. Good cultural detectives step outside their own biases because they are aware of them. Be aware of any tendencies to extrapolate or make assumptions based on the information or feedback you receive.

Foster your curiosity

Asking good questions is the foundation of curiosity. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say there’s no such thing as a bad question. That’s not entirely true. But there is no such thing as a bad authentic question. If you’re not exercising the art of curiosity, it’s difficult to ask authentic questions. And if you’re not asking authentic questions, it’s hard to meet people where they are and see things from their perspective.

Consider the different questions you might hear in any of your organization’s meetings. How many of those questions are rooted in curiosity (and the genuine desire to know something), and how many of them are disguised to showcase the speaker’s viewpoints (such as rhetorical or leading questions)?

All too often, organizational conversations inadvertently and unintentionally de-emphasize curiosity. Instead, people ask leading questions. Think about this from your own experience. Do you feel heard when someone asks you leading questions? In your own interview experience, have you noted the difference between interviews that feel like conversations — where it’s clear the person asking questions is genuinely interested in your answers — and interviews that are full of leading questions, where there are clearly right or wrong answers?

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Ask open-ended questions

As a cultural detective, to get to the root of issues and understand your organization’s culture, you must ask questions from a mindset of curiosity, and do so with an open-minded desire to learn.

I have several go-to questions that are intentionally open-ended. I like these questions because they force me — or whoever is doing the interviewing — to be open to new thoughts and ideas. Before I begin asking these questions, I make it clear that the interview is confidential and clarify how the answers will be used; you’ll want to do the same. For instance, if you are asking people questions to identify pain points, process bottlenecks, and highlight opportunities for improvement in your organization’s cultural systems, you must be transparent with your interviewees. Any other approach will increase mistrust, frustration, and disengagement.

Let’s look at these questions one at a time:

  • What are the bright spots in our culture? Starting from a positive place allows you to work from shared common ground and can help you develop a connection. Additionally, this question is open-ended and enables your answerer to focus on what is important to him or her.
  • What are points of tension? It may be worth clarifying that these points of tension could be between people, resulting from points of a system, or issues or processes that cause personal stress. Focus on ensuring that your questions are not leading and that they allow individuals to answer honestly and openly.
  • If I gave you a magic wand, what three changes would you make? Giving your interviewee a magic wand grants the power, authority, and resources to make the suggested changes. The point here isn’t to look at the reasons why you can’t do something, but rather what you could do if there weren’t any limitations. Your goal is to understand the culture, and what parts of that culture need to change, rather than say why it can’t change.

As you ask these questions, your attitude can make a big difference in how people respond. Ask your questions impartially, curiously, and in a one-on-one setting to ensure openness, transparency, and honesty. Respect confidentiality and ask follow-up questions as needed to fully hear what people tell you.

Other questions that are equally open-ended and can also help you understand the culture of your organization include:

  • What are people talking about in your organization? How are they talking about it?
  • What’s the emotional culture? What are people allowed to express? What gets suppressed?
  • What behaviors are tolerated? What behaviors get rewarded?
  • How are decisions made? Who makes them and how?
  • How is trust built? How would you describe the level of trust?
  • How is conflict handled? What types of conflict do you observe?
  • What are the barriers to collaboration?
  • How to do people relate and connect? According to the org chart? Or in other ways?
  • Are there silos? Do certain people, teams, or departments act as bridges or interpreters for other teams or departments?

Typically, I’ll compile the interview data into a bullet-pointed list (making sure to exclude any information that identifies individuals) and send it back out to the organization for review. As you compile the data, you want to watch for trends and themes. What are people consistently mentioning? What’s emerging as an area to further explore?

Put the pieces together

As a cultural detective, these questions help you build a huge puzzle of information and clues. From that puzzle, however, it’s still up to you to put the pieces together, to see each answer as part of a larger system, to draw hypotheses, and then reflect these hypotheses back to the larger organization for discussion.

If you can gather clues and put the pieces together with self-awareness and objectivity — building on the pieces of information you’ve been entrusted with — you’ll be well on your way to understanding your organization’s culture. You’ll reveal the places where it’s already brilliant and the areas where there’s an opportunity to shine more brightly.

Claudette Rowley is the CEO of Cultural Brilliance, a cultural design and change management consultancy. Over the past twenty years, she has consulted, trained, and coached executive leaders and teams at Fortune 1000 companies, small businesses, academic institutions, and start-ups, helping them create proactive and innovative workplace cultures that deliver outstanding results. She lays out a road map for organizational success in her new book, Cultural Brilliance: The DNA of Organizational Excellence. Learn more at culturalbrilliance.com.

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