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Cultivating Culture

January 01, 2020

Originally posted on EngineeringNZ’s Website

The culture of an organisation reflects its values. So, how can you measure it, and how can you improve it?

Google hires some of the best talent in the world. But they found when they put those talented people into teams, the outcomes were inconsistent. Sometimes the teams performed well, but sometimes they struggled, even though every person had to pass through a rigorous hiring process. Google’s People Operations team wanted to find out why some teams performed so well while others didn’t.

Google’s Project Aristotle reviewed half a century of academic studies on teamwork. They studied hundreds of Google’s engineering teams using the company’s best statisticians, organisational psychologists, sociologists, and engineers. They looked at the teammates’ interests, hobbies and educational backgrounds. But no matter how researchers cut up the data, they couldn’t find any patterns. Out of the most effective teams, some were composed of close-knit friends while others had people who were strangers outside of work.

When researchers stumbled upon the concept of psychological safety, everything started to fall into place. Amongst all the data and research, how someone felt in the team made the difference.

Former London Business School Professor Sumantra Ghoshal describes how you feel in a team as “the smell of the place”. He said while measuring organisational culture was difficult, imagining you can almost “smell” it makes the intangible more tangible. The key is to make sure the people who work within your organisation are attuned, inspired, and energised by that “smell”: the distinct culture, values, and experience your company offers. Culture is simply the set of behaviours that people practice at work. These behaviours reflect your company’s values, and influence how people feel at work, and they can be measured.

“The key is to make sure the people who work within your organisation are attuned, inspired, and energised by that “smell”: the distinct culture, values, and experience your company offers.”

One measure is wellbeing. People can’t do great work when they’re exhausted. Our cognitive resources deplete over time and we need breaks to refuel. Examining behaviours such as how often people are working long hours (ie during weekends or evenings) can provide insight into whether your team members are getting enough space for their own wellbeing.

Measuring behaviours such as levels of participation in team conversations can show the level of psychological safety within any given team. As Google’s Project Aristotle research showed, when teams have high psychological safety, everyone is more likely to participate equally in conversations. When a team has low psychological safety, some team members may be reluctant to take part in public discussions. One easy way to look for this is to watch for whether everyone is getting a chance to speak in team meetings.

Vivian Chandra

Looking at who is, and who is not, getting feedback, and who provides support to whom can provide insight into whether your team supports each other to grow.

When considering teams, and team culture, diversity is important. Having diverse teams, and working on creating safe, inclusive workspaces, leads to better team culture. American academic Margaret A Neale says diverse teams have an advantage when it comes to managing conflict. She says when team members can see diversity, such as a person’s race, it cues a team there’s likely to be differences of opinion. Team members expect it and are not surprised when it occurs as can be the case in a more homogeneous team that is not expecting conflict.

Making progress on diversity, inclusion, and team culture can be challenging. It takes time and requires people to acknowledge and engage with their unconscious biases and see how these intersect with the organisation’s ideal culture. We suggest you start with three simple steps.

  1. Assess where you are today, perhaps by discussing your goals as a company or running an in-depth diversity and inclusion survey.
  2. Set goals and create systems for accountability and change. Decide on what metrics you want to measure and set up ways to track that progress.
  3. Experiment and learn.

Find out more about improving your organisation’s culture, and diversity and inclusion outcomes, at and

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