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Learning About Culture on the Restroom Wa​lls​

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While visiting an organization last week, I chanced to use the restroom. As I exited, I noticed a posting titled "Am I engaged in the mission?" The memo contained a synopsis of the organization's mission, as well as why the engagement of all employees in that mission was important to both the organization and the employees.

To me, this was evidence that someone within the organization cared about the organization's mission and employee engagement.

Now, you may wonder why a posting in the restroom is such a good thing. Some people still find it surprising, but the best way to ensure people read something is to put it next to the doors in the restroom. So, the location of this notice showed that management did, indeed, want employees to see the memo and that the organization's mission was important — so important that it was placed where everyone could read it.

However, as I read the memo more closely, the first paragraph quickly revealed that management might have ulterior motives — ones that didn't align with my initial picture of a leadership that truly cared about employee engagement because of its role in the organization's success. That first paragraph read, "How engaged are you? It's an important question to ask ourselves, and it is timely because the annual organization-wide Employee Engagement Survey is coming soon."

Management may have felt it was sending a message of engagement. However, that last phrase turned the message into "The main reason your engagement in our mission is important is because it helps us do well on the employee survey."

Now, there might be much more to this story than revealed in that one memo. It could be the organization spent a lot of time discussing mission and the employee's role. And it's possible that this was just one more reminder, meant to reinforce what had been taught all along while also reminding everyone that the survey was coming.

But to the casual observer (to the person who didn't work there but only needed to use the restroom) it came off as an effort focused on nothing more than assurance that certain numbers would be hit.

So, let's say you're conducting an audit, and you come across this bulletin. First, do you even notice it? (First rule of auditing: Be aware of everything going on around you.) Second, do you look closely at what is being said, as well as what is being implied? And, finally, do you read it, look closely, and then start to ask questions about the culture?

Whenever the discussion of doing audits of an organization's culture come up, invariably, someone will talk about hard it is to evaluate culture or how it isn't allowed in his organization or how her boss just ignores anything she might say or any of the myriad excuses that keep us from moving forward in this important area.

But auditing culture doesn't have to be brain science. It is as simple as paying attention to the communications that occur around you as you work on the audit. It is hearing the way people talk to each other. It is listening to the way customers are treated. It is observing the interactions between management and employees. And it is reading the flyers, bulletins, memos, and notices that are scattered throughout the office — even if they are in the restroom.

Auditing the organizational culture does not need to be a highfalutin affair with an organization-wide scope and the buy-in of managers, directors, AVPs, VPs, and the Most Grand High Poohbahs. The most effective reviews of organizational culture happen as part of every audit. If you are doing a site visit — auditing a specific office, warehouse, factory, etc. — what hints about the culture can you find within that building? If you are doing an operational audit, how is the culture expressed in the way the work is done. And, in any audit — operational, strategic, financial, compliance – when you speak with the people in charge, do they say the right things and then back it up with the right actions? Or is there a disconnect between words and deeds?

And don't let anyone convince you that culture is not in the scope of your audit, no matter what the "stated" scope is. Because culture is foundational to the success of any operation. And, because any audit should be conducted to ensure organizational objectives are successful, then culture is embedded in all of it.

And you will be amazed how many times, when you ask all the "whys"​ you're supposed to ask in identifying root causes, it turns out that the real problem is culture.

Even if you aren't doing "audits of organizational culture," even if those around you do not see the value in such a review, even if you feel like it may be a waste of time, keep your eyes and ears open and look for the signs that show that a weakness in the culture may be eroding everything the organization is trying to achieve.

And be sure to read what you find on the bathroom walls.

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