Employee Engagement is Only Half of the Story

Lately, it seems our LinkedIn feeds have been filled with blogs emphasizing the experiences of people in organizational transformation.  Leaders across industries are increasingly aware of the importance and difficulty of people-centered change. Indeed, 93 percent of leaders in North Highland’s research say that involving employees in the design of change yields higher levels of adoption. Coupled with compounding pressure to demonstrate progress through data and measurement, many leaders fall back on engagement scores to prove an organization’s cultural maturity. With 31 percent of business leaders in our annual Beacon research considering organizational culture a transformation area, our experience has shown that many leaders are using only engagement scores to measure success in their cultural transformations.  In other words, engagement scores are often heralded as the sole indicators of cultural health, despite the fact that engagement and culture are two very different things.

According to Gallup, engaged employees are those who work with passion and feel profoundly connected to their companies. In a valiant effort to understand the impact of people on their organizations, leaders over the past decade have started to ask employees how they feel about their workplace. Subsequently, they’ve been using that information to draw a direct correlation to productivity. Rooted in neuroscience, behavior, and emotional intelligence, engagement scores were used as the primary indicator of what organizations were getting right and where they still needed to improve. Over time, leaders started to elevate the role of engagement scores in understanding the organization as a whole. The fundamental limitation is that engagement doesn’t tell us about an organization’s culture. Instead, it tells us how a person feels about that culture. When leaders are attempting to make changes for the good of the company, reverting to engagement scores gives employees sentiment an unbalanced level of influence. Basing decisions solely on engagement scores tips the scales towards employee engagement rather than making decisions that are focused on customers, business outcomes, or connection to organizational mission. 

Engagement scores are only one small part of the organization’s people story. Engagement is limited to examining the individual’s feelings towards how the espoused beliefs are manifested with the organization. Culture, on the other hand, is the invisible presence or personality of an organization. It fills in the gaps between individual perception and group action. Every company on the Fortune 100 list, for example, has its own distinct culture. Ask its employees! You may hear things like “open and honest two-way communication,” “sense of belonging,” “intrinsic motivation,” “authoritative,” and more. Culture is displayed across multiple layers, including the vision/values, communication, leadership, teamwork, capability, environment, measurement, and recognition.  Understanding the intersections across these levers sheds light on how people work together, not merely how the individual feels about the workplace.

When paired together, engagement and culture can create a powerful story about the health of an organization.  Engagement offers insight into the emotional side of culture.  While culture will tell you “how it is,” engagement can reveal how your organization “feels about it.”  To address challenges surrounding employees (and their ways of working) as your organization’s defining asset, you must also be able to measure how cultural initiatives land on the psyche and behaviors of your people. “Since culture is driven by people’s belief systems — that often ties into underlying emotional constructs — you cannot simply tell people to change their culture,” said Bard Papegaaij, a leading change facilitator. Instead, leaders must first make the case that cultural change is needed, and then help employees foster a new belief system that reinforces a reimagined set of behaviors. Many leaders start transformations by rethinking the key areas of strategy and operations. Even among those who thoughtfully account for the people experience, they frequently overlook the important question of how the organizational culture will evolve as a result of the business transformation.  Many leaders limit their efforts to the practice of change management. The strength of using ongoing assessments of both culture and engagement can help to reveal the true impact of transformation on the workforce.

Thoughtful leaders recognize that building organizations that are ready to tackle ongoing change requires a look at more than just a shallow moment-in-time capture of the emotional temperature of employees through engagement scores.  The intentional scrutiny of vision/values, communications, leadership, capability, teamwork, environment, recognition and measurement – the CULTURE of an organization – holds the key to understanding how to move forward to create a resilient and change ready workforce. Engagement helps inform the effect of culture management. Together, culture and engagement offer insights that allow leaders to create an outcomes-focused, resilient organization.

When bringing engagement and culture together for maximum impact, we’ve outlined four key questions to answer to get started:

  1. How would you describe your organization’s culture?
  2. What words do people use to talk about how they feel at your organization?
  3. To what extent have you thought about the alignment between your organizational culture and engagement?
  4. To what degree do you believe culture (and engagement) impacts your strategy and purpose?