If someone asked you about your organization’s culture, would you know how to describe it?

Your organization’s culture DNA is made up of the underlying beliefs, assumptions, values, and ways of interacting that contribute to the unique environment at your workplace. The classic “nature versus nurture” debate of human behavior can apply to your organization’s behavior, too. Is culture ingrained in your agency’s DNA due to decades of tradition? Or is it nurtured into existence by the current leadership’s preferences and style? At Brighter Strategies, we believe it’s a blend of both.

Before you can change, influence, or improve culture, you have to understand it. Follow the steps below to uncover your organization’s culture DNA.

Strands of DNA, showing it's double helix structure.

Begin with the Vision and Mission

Your organization’s vision is your aspiration. Your mission is a blueprint to achieve that dream. Use the vision and mission as a launching pad for your culture audit. Often these statements describe your desired culture, which may not be reflected by current reality.

As a first step, ask key senior leaders and decision makers to review your organization’s mission and vision and describe how those beliefs shape (or should shape) the organization’s culture. Write down culture characteristics (beliefs, assumptions, values, and ways of interacting) that connect with these philosophies.

Gather Data

With your descriptions in hand, gather data to reveal gaps between the culture you currently have and the culture want to attain. The aim here is to gather a variety of stakeholder stories that will reflect your agency’s nitty-gritty cultural realities.

  • Surveys: Administer a culture survey to your employees, customers, and Board members. A culture survey tool that allows people to take it online or on-site will get more participation. Close-ended questions test for specific culture traits such as communication, change readiness, management support, and transparency. Here’s an example of survey questions.
  • Interviews: Choose a handful of individuals from various stakeholder groups. These in-person sessions are directed by open-ended questions. Listen and take notes, allowing folks to speak freely. The combined interview answers will paint a vivid picture of underlying culture norms—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Questions can include:
    1. What behaviors are rewarded at your company?
    2. When a new employee begins, how do you or other employees describe to him what it’s like to work at the organization?
    3. How do members of the senior leadership team interact with each other? With mangers? With frontline employees?
    4. Describe meetings. How are they run, and how do employees feel about attending them? How do employees feel after they leave the meetings?
  • Focus group: Finally, invite eight to 10 stakeholders to engage in a small, focused, group discussion. Guide the focus group’s conversation to clarify any outstanding questions and validate common themes that emerged from the surveys and interviews.

Use Assessments

Formal assessments such as the Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI) can make measuring culture DNA simpler. This statistically reliable and valid survey provides metrics that will round out your data and give you a place to start when you’re ready to tackle culture change.

Factor in Consulting

Finally, put the pieces together with an objective consultant. This person can be internal or hired from an outside firm. She will provide oversight to the culture identification process, including project management expertise and recommendations for next steps.

Don’t be discouraged if the culture DNA you uncover differs from your assumptions. When you make culture a business priority, you can shape it to be what you want—and what your organization needs. Maintain your competitive advantage by keeping culture at the forefront of your ongoing strategy.