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Harry Cassin
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Three key concepts of ‘subculture audits’

In my previous post, I looked at the drivers behind a “behavioral revolution” now happening in banks. Diving deeper into this, let’s unpack what’s behind the “subculture audits” concept, and how these are different from and more effective than the culture assessment surveys we are all familiar with.

Why look at culture now? 

The Covid-19 outbreak was a massive culture shock for our organizations. Job and career migration followed the initial inertia after the lockdowns. Job and career migration accelerated in 2021 and is likely to continue in 2022. The drivers behind it speak to questions at the very heart of workplace culture.

This could be a perfect opportunity to take a closer look at how we manage organizational cultures, question the conventional approach, and reframe things for the future.

Here are the top three learnings from the behavioral teams in the financial sector – undoubtedly worth consideration for ethics and compliance professionals across all industries:

Get granular

When a certain behavior needs to be changed, it is critical to be very specific. The same applies to managing culture: a very targeted approach can be more beneficial than looking at the whole organization with a holistic culture assessment. Because problems usually lie in the granular but not in the average. Within the same organization, the climate can vary significantly from one team/location/department to another, and that’s essentially what subcultures are about and why we need to deep dive into them.

Use multiple methods 

Organizational culture has a complex structure that exists at both tangible and intangible levels. The tangible elements include policies, processes, technology, and observable behavior. The intangibles are the shared beliefs and values, rationalizations, perceptions, and “underlying assumptions” that determine “how things are done here.”

Managing culture is not about changing specific cultural levels in isolation but about achieving alignment throughout. Misaligned cultures are dangerous as they cause cynic attitudes and distrust in management and may ultimately lead to unwanted behaviors.

Behavioral scientists use multiple methods to look at tangible and intangible elements (e.g., desk research to look at written rules, ethnographies to observe the behavior in real-life situations, and so on). Mixed methods provide better insight, reveal any misalignment between the elements, and help minimize the inherent limitations of every single method. 

Surveys are not truth

Culture and engagement surveys are valuable instruments. Yet, they are insufficient: many behavioral risks are not related to things you can measure with a survey. 

Also, surveys are affected by the subcultures people answering them are embedded in. As ethical culture worsens, surveys become less reliable due to pressures and normalization of poor behavior. In environments with low psychological safety, employees won’t speak up for fear of repercussions, or unethical behavior may be so normalized that employees might not see any problems at all. Either way, nothing will come up in a survey.

That said, surveys help generalize observations to larger populations. But it is essential to keep in mind that a survey is a data set that needs to be understood within other data sets. So again, use mixed methods, compare and triangulate.

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