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Jane Hopkinson - MA (Hons), MSc H Psych

Does high engagement create a good organisational culture? Or is it a good culture that creates high engagement? Which comes first?

Employee engagement and organisational culture are often talked about in the same breath, with the terms used synonymously. This leads to confusion and prevents organisations from taking the actions needed to develop and sustain both good engagement and a good culture.

To clear this debate up, let’s start by thinking about each construct in turn:


Employee engagement


Employee engagement can be defined as the level of connection, motivation and commitment someone has for their workplace. In other words, it’s how employees feel about their work, teams and the organisation. You can measure these perceptions through annual, or even monthly, surveys.

Engagement is critical to the success of an organisation. Gallup conducts an annual meta-analysis to determine the impact of employee engagement (measured by a survey) on profitability, productivity, employee retention and customer perception.

Despite massive changes in technology and ways of working, the results have been consistent for over ten years – engaged employees are associated with better business outcomes than other employees. This finding is replicated across other industries, company sizes and nationalities, in good economic times and bad. Engaged employees are also associated with lower absenteeism, greater loyalty, and higher levels of wellbeing.

The evidence is clear; good engagement benefits your business performance and the employee experience. That’s why treating employee engagement as a key business metric is essential.


Organisational culture


The concept of organisational culture is multi-dimensional and can therefore be hard to grasp. Essentially, organisational culture determines how an organisation operates, and may mean different things to different stakeholders in and outside an organisation.


“The way we do things around here” remains a commonly-cited definition, often expanded to include “when no one is looking”.

However, this definition is too simplistic, especially when considering how to create an organisational culture to be proud of; a culture that provides a great employee experience throughout the whole talent lifecycle, from attraction to retention.

Schein, a prominent organisational scholar defined culture in three levels:

●     What we see: core business activities, systems, processes, resource provision, physical working environment, observable behaviours, and rituals that characterise how an organisation does things daily. In other words, the visible manifestations of culture.

●     What we say: espoused values and beliefs, the things you state you believe. In other words, how an organisation explains its culture via official public statements such as mission and vision, codes of conduct and core company values.

●     What we believe: underlying, tacit assumptions, values and beliefs. The understood, traditional and unofficial ways of being, doing and feeling. These are deeply embedded and unconscious but constitute the essence of a culture.

 Culture is at the core of the function of an organisation. It cannot and should not be separated from it. Just like engagement, culture can and should be measured and is a key metric for business performance.


The whole picture


Engagement and culture are interrelated; fostering one without the other or poor attention to both will lead to negative outcomes.

One of the best ways to drive engagement is to have a positive and purposeful culture. Great cultures keep people invested by creating an environment that supports them, sets them up to succeed and encourages them to do their best work. People will feel connected and involved and therefore engaged. So, rather than getting hung up on the chicken or egg debate we need to take a holistic view of culture and engagement.


What gets measured gets managed and improved


Over forty years ago, management theorist Peter Drucker reportedly said,


What gets measured gets managed and improved”.

This certainly makes sense. Measuring the current culture and the gap between that and the desired culture is a vital step in any business improvement initiative.

The need to measure engagement and culture is clearly important for business success, yet whilst a well-established tradition of measuring engagement exists, the desire to assess and measure organisational culture has been less evident. Measurements of engagement are often taken as a proxy for cultural assessments. A key reason for this gap may be the perceived complexity of organisational culture, and the challenge of where best to begin.


Meaningful metrics contribute to change

From ancient Egyptian cubits to fitness trackers, humankind has long been seeking ever more ways to measure the world – and ourselves. The underlying principle – that any human endeavour can be usefully reduced to a set of statistics – has become one of the dominant paradigms of the 21st century.


Culture change cannot and should not avoid metrics, but these need to be utilised appropriately.

The most useful metrics not only measure the progress of culture change, but they also contribute to making it happen. What matters most is that evidence-based actions and improvements take place and are reported and shared. Shifting focus from problem-centricity to solution-finding can result in pride, optimism, replication of improvements across departments, time saving and a circle of continuous improvement.


This is culture change in action.

If any of the themes explored here have sparked interest, get in touch. SMRS have a continuous improvement and holistic approach to culture change and would love to tell you more about it and how we can help your organisation change for the better.

By Jane Hopkinson – MA (Hons), MSc H Psych