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Resources

Want to Prevent Culture Drift? Take a Temporal Perspective

Prevent culture drift in your organization by taking a temporal perspective today and to keep things moving in the right direction.

In recent years, culture maintenance has become a priority in many organizations. Many leaders fear that in today’s disruptive business environment, culture drift—the gradual erosion of critical values and shared assumptions—could lead to culture disintegration. One of my colleagues, the head of engagement and culture at a mid-sized healthcare facility, expressed this fear clearly: “Things just haven’t been the same since the pandemic. Everyone says something feels different. And we’re seeing negative trends on our annual employee survey. We need a cultural reset—some kind of jump start.”

Because the root causes of this decline were so hard to pinpoint, my colleague wanted to conduct a post-survey conversation with the entire workforce—just over 8,000 employees—about their experiences at work. Realizing that it would take months to gather this data via traditional focus groups, he started looking for alternatives and discovered Remesh.

As we discussed ways of using the platform to help with this effort, he shared his research plan. He wanted to conduct a conventional culture review, asking employees to describe the existing culture, envision an idealized future culture, and identify discrepancies. “A gap analysis could be interesting,” I said. “But it could also prevent you from learning what has changed over the past couple of years. If you want to understand how and why your culture has shifted, you need to take a different approach.”

Considering Culture from a Temporal Perspective

Many leaders assume that the healthiest cultures are steady and unchanging, a constant backdrop that stabilizes systems. But the work of cultural theorist Raymond Williams counters this assumption. According to Williams, organizational cultures are dynamic and ever-changing, vacillating back and forth between historical traditions and values, present-day norms and trends, and emerging challenges and opportunities. Building on Williams’ theory, psychologist Jane Bryson has shown how researchers can gain deeper insights into cultural dynamics by exploring the interactions between an organization’s historical or remnant culture, its dominant current culture, and its new and emergent culture.

Williams’ theory allows for a powerful way to trace the evolution of culture over time. By reflecting on what your culture once was, what it is now, and how it is changing in response to emerging events, you can understand how your organization is developing, where it might be stuck, and how it may need to adapt in the future. Which legacy cultural elements and traditions anchor your company? What holds you back? Which emergent trends are helping your organization innovate and adapt? Which are pulling your employees off course? How does your current culture need to change to ensure your organization is prepared for the future? These are the kinds of questions you can explore through a temporal investigation of culture.

The Brainstorm

After sharing this perspective with my colleague, we brainstormed ways it could inform his inquiry. We arrived at four broad topics he wanted to explore with his workforce.

  1. Remnant culture: What valued traditions and outdated assumptions from the past are still affecting the organization?
  2. Current culture: What are the strengths and limitations of the current culture?
  3. Culture shifts: What new norms and nascent assumptions are emerging?
  4. Implications: Where are the tension points between the past, present, and future and what are the opportunities for development and change?
cultural stages

Based on these topics, we then built out a customized conversation guide consisting of a series of closed and open-ended questions. Some items in this guide came from Remesh’s library of culture-specific research questions; a subset of these items can be found here.

Participants respond in their own words and vote on each other's responses while the moderators watch the data pour in, in real-time

After developing the conversation guide, my colleague and I reflected on what he hoped to learn from his Remesh conversation with his employees. “My whole perspective on our culture crisis has shifted,” he said. “I’m a lot less concerned about culture drift. Instead, now I want to know what kind of culture pruning we need to get started.”

Organizational cultures are not static. They are constantly in flux, influenced by a range of internal and external pressures and events. By examining your culture through a temporal lens — exploring how your legacy culture, your current culture, and your emerging culture are interacting and shaping people’s perspectives — you can develop a better understanding of the steering currents, basic assumptions, and tension points that are affecting your leaders, managers, and employees and influencing their behavior.

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