Observing Workplace Culture

As businesses grow, there is sometimes a danger that their internal culture changes, one imperceptible step at a time, until their DNA becomes diluted.

Or perhaps their original DNA mutated a long time ago, and they want to get it back…

Or perhaps they want to create a whole new double helix of it from scratch!

To this end, I’ve become increasingly interested in methods of running objective culture diagnostic and culture change projects, with the goal of ensuring a business’s people are fully engaged with its vision.

As well as the usual diagnostic methods – surveys, internal focus groups, etc – I’ve become convinced that organisational ethnography has a really strong role to play in this.

Ethnography is a term that has been somewhat hijacked by commercial researchers. Its roots lie in academia, wherein ethnographic research involves spending days, weeks, months, or even years immersing oneself in hitherto unexplored cultural environments to make sense of them by observation and interpretation. It’s closer to anthropology, really.

I’ve found just by being in an office environment and watching, listening, observing what’s going on – all the implicit stuff – is far more of an eye-opener than any other approach.

What are the rituals and codes going on in a workplace? What are the rules – whether spoken or unspoken?

How do people express themselves? And how do they NOT express themselves?

How do they seem to be feeling?

What’s the tone when something goes wrong?

I find a period of simple immersion and observation a great precursor to engaging explicitly with staff on these kinds of projects. It can helps build fast hypotheses, and it can tell you so much.

Posted in Business, Cultural affairs
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