We would love to include you as a
subscriber to Leeding Thoughts!
Sign-up below:

Email Format

Organisational Culture: why Human Synergistics isn’t my choice

When I launched Leed Consulting 6 years ago I made no secret that supporting organisations to enhance their culture was my passion. Recently back from the UK, I was surprised to find that in large sections of the HR community in Australia, Human Synergistics is to organisational culture as ‘Kleenex’ is to tissues; so closely linked that decision makers didn’t seem to know they had a choice.

Had I been accredited in Human Synergistics, I’m sure I wouldn’t have questioned this assumption. As it was, I was bringing a different tool to the Adelaide market. It’s a tool only three consultancies in Australia are qualified to use – and one that dominates in the US and across Europe (where it is used by the likes of Coca-Cola, Hertz, NASA, IKEA, Amazon and Google). That tool is the Denison Organisational Culture Model.

Before I go further, I need to stress that I do respect the Human Synergistics tools, and my accredited colleagues. I know that the data they provide can be a powerful catalyst for change. My goal here is not to disparage the competition, but to answer a question I’m asked almost weekly: “Why don’t you use Human Synergistics?”

Let’s start with the origins of the two tools, because the journey often reveals a lot about the destination. The foundation of the Human Synergistics model is the work of Clay Lafferty, a clinical psychologist who aimed to identify the cultural levers that maximise personal health and wellbeing. By contrast, organisational psychologist Daniel Denison was interested in identifying the cultural characteristics that improve organisational performance.

Denison’s resulting model statistically links organisational culture to financial performance, not just the psychological health and wellbeing of their people. Don’t misinterpret me here – psychological health and wellbeing is critically important (and a core part of my own business is focussed on building personal resilience!). I’m just not convinced that the ‘culture lens’ is the best way to address this.

Perhaps it’s my years as a corporate lawyer, drafting complex documents in plain English, but accessibility is one of the top criteria in any tool I use. If we want people at all levels of the organisation to engage with the assessment results, we don’t want them bamboozled by the language used. Denison’s tools are underpinned by business, not psychological, research, and they use common business language. That makes them both accessible and easy to align with existing business processes (e.g. KPIs, performance planning, strategic planning, customer feedback and complaints, values statement, exit interviews etc.). In my experience, this can be particularly valuable in avoiding the sense of overwhelm that often comes with cultural change processes.

Denison also takes a strengths-based approach, measuring 12 traits from Denison’s research that are critical to high performance. We measure what we want, not what we don’t want. People respond far better to ‘These are the strengths you need to develop’; they are not so keen on ‘Sure you have strengths, but they’re in the areas we don’t want’. If we want people to engage with cultural change, we need to set them up for success in the language we use and in how we frame the challenge.

Although Denison is cost-effective, some organisations don’t have the budget or appetite for a culture survey process. Fortunately, the model provides value well beyond forming a base for a survey. It can be used as a project-planning tool to ensure appropriate attention is placed on the cultural levers that maximise success. This allows a common language around culture to be fostered and developed.

Suggesting an alternative to Human Synergistics might be seen as naïve, or even sacrilegious by some. However, the aim of all my work is to explore if the beliefs and assumptions we hold, either personally or within our organisations, are helping or hindering us from unleashing our potential. I’m not expecting to persuade those who believe they already use the best tool, but I am hoping to expand awareness of why it’s worth looking beyond Australia’s ‘Kleenex’ of Culture Surveys.

No single tool can solve all your cultural problems, but the Denison approach does give you valid and insightful data on how you can leverage your culture to drive organisational performance. It fosters honest conversations in the organisation about current cultural strengths and weaknesses, and it promotes thoughtful actions based on the outcomes of those conversations. In my experience, these are two critical ingredients in the recipe for a high performance culture.

Diarmid Lee

If you'd like to share your thoughts, or have questions, you can join the discussion here.