When Is the Right Time to Do a Culture Assessment?

October 18, 2021 Jamie Notter

You don’t run a full culture assessment with your employees every day. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who does it more than once a year, and given all the other employee surveys you might want to run, culture often takes a back seat. I’ve seen organizations wait three, five, even ten years in between assessments.

Though that will actually put more pressure on you when you do decide to assess the culture—you want to make sure you’re doing it at the right time to maximize the value. What if some of your key staff just left—should you wait until they are replaced? What if morale is particularly low right now—will the results be “accurate?” What if you recently completed an engagement survey—will your people have survey fatigue?

Some of those concerns are important, but some of them, I would argue, are not. Here is my advice on what factors should (and should not) influence the timing of your culture assessment.

SHOULD: Survey Fatigue. This is not about the length of the survey (they don’t literally get tired filling out the survey), but the suspicion your people may have that you’re ignoring their input. If you survey them on their preferences on benefits one week, then run the annual engagement survey two weeks later, and then run a culture assessment three weeks after that, you won’t have had time to actually DO something with the results of the previous two surveys, and that’s what lowers trust—and response rate—for the culture assessment.

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SHOULD NOT: Morale is low. A good culture assessment is NOT measuring morale. It should be measuring internal patterns around what’s valued. If morale is low, that might shift attention to some patterns over others, but the same is true if morale is high. You always have to evaluate the context in which culture questions were answered, but waiting for one particular context is pointless, because no matter what, there will ALWAYS be a context.

SHOULD: Your business model is in flux. If the disruption in your world is so great that you don’t have a solid grasp on what is going to make you successful moving forward, then hold off on that culture assessment. The purpose of knowing the current state of your culture is to identify how you must change that current state to be more successful. But if you don’t know what will make you successful, then your current data is not truly actionable. Flesh out the business model, THEN measure the existing culture.

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SHOULD NOT: Staff transitions (even the CEO). You don’t need to wait for new people to be hired to measure the culture, since they will be brand new and won’t know how to answer the questions. And you don’t need to make sure you do it before people leave, because the numbers will be too small to impact the scores (unless 40% of your staff is leaving, in which case you have bigger fish to fry). Even a CEO transition is no real reason to delay. A new CEO needs to know the existing culture, and that can be measured either right before or right after they start, with roughly the same results.

The bottom line is, you should measure your culture when you feel like you can take meaningful action based on the results. If things are changing fast, you might need to do that assessment more than once a year, even. Your assessment is a measurement at a unique moment in time—you never put your foot into the same river twice. So be strategic about how you will use it.

If you want to learn more about our culture assessment, check that out here.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.