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Have you created a ‘behavioral risk map’ of your organization?

In my previous post, we looked at subculture audits. How to get granular and why culture surveys, as we know them, have serious limitations in measuring culture. Culture has multiple layers with tangible and intangible elements, which are, in other words, formal and informal drivers of employee behavior. Applying multiple research methods to arrive at valid conclusions in culture assessments is key. 

Every single method has its inherent limitations – to compensate for that, use a mix.

Academics call it a “mixed method” approach. In practice, this means using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, which allows exploring diverse perspectives and uncovering relationships between layers and elements of culture. 

All this theory looks great, but what about practice? A valid question. Let’s now look at how behavioral units in banks apply mixed methods to assess behavioral risks. Here are some of the key tactics they use: 

Ethnography is an immersive approach associated with work-floor observations. A fly on the wall, in simple terms. The method entails observing behaviors in action and taking field notes in real-time. Bronislaw Malinowski, its inventor, became famous for literally setting up a tent in the middle of villages he studied. Ethnography is ideally suited to carry out subculture audits, as it allows to understand group dynamics, see values “in practice,” and assess deeper organizational causes of non-compliance.

Semi-structured interviews and confidential conversations are excellent ways to learn about individual-level perceptions (i.e., what employees think about compliance) and delve into a specific case or a topic of interest. This method collects information directly from employees, so there is a risk of reluctance to speak up. Interestingly, a virtual work environment seems to help with that: behavioral practitioners say Zoom makes people more comfortable opening up.

Surveys have many limitations. However, they are a valuable instrument to generalize observations from ethnographies and interviews (which are very difficult to scale up) to larger groups of people. Also, there are ways to make surveys better – for example, factorial surveys that ask respondents to judge various situations (vignettes) may establish causality and minimize the effect of social desirability bias.

Desktop review and secondary data from different sources provide another angle. How does the area/subculture we are studying look on paper? Are there any misalignments with the day-to-day reality we see? Whistleblowing reports, risk assessments, and internal audit data – all of these provide additional insights. External sources include customer reviews and feedback from other “outsiders.” Also, there is a growing body of research on so-called “unobtrusive measures,” i.e., through collecting data without engaging employees. Last year, for example, the paper on the language pattern analysis of Glassdoor employee reviews as an indicator of corporate misconduct risk made headlines.

How are these methods applied?

There are two approaches: bottom-up and top-down. The bottom-up approach allows us to look at what employees are doing versus what leaders think they are doing. It is a great way to ground the “we are already ethical” thinking often widespread among the leadership teams. The top-down approach, on the contrary, looks at the employee lifecycle, top-down HR decisions such as performance and promotions, and how these have been made.

Before drawing any conclusions, all quantitative and qualitative inputs are analyzed and triangulated to see if any common themes come up. These should then be connected to behavioral theory to arrive at evidence-based red flags and recommendations to management. Looking at subcultures one by one, you ultimately arrive at a behavioral risk map of the organization.

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