The Devilish Details of Workplace Culture: Engagement versus Culture

I am Paul Mastrangelo, a Principal Culture Strategist at CultureIQ. I want my clients to succeed, and I partner with them to build a culture among employees that improves company performance and the working environment. I see so many smart dedicated leaders act based on common thinking about talent management, but many times common thinking is wrong.

In my colleague Wendy Mack’s recent blog Why Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast, she identified the need to get more precise in defining “culture” and to clarify that it is not synonymous with making the work environment more engaging and satisfying. I agree and want to expand on her thinking. Today, I explore the distinction between culture and engagement. Coming soon, I will examine the confusion between culture and values followed by the validity of various culture frameworks.

Culture Should Not be About Making Employees Happy

Human Resources is evaluated positively when employees are staying with the company, feeling satisfied with their job, and getting along with management and coworkers. Media and LinkedIn posts like to equate these outcomes with culture. If your company doesn’t keep employees, make them happy, and have them working harmoniously, then it has a “toxic culture.” When CultureIQ staff ask business and HR leaders about their culture strategy, we often hear about efforts to engage and satisfy employees. If they are happy, then they will work better – and that’s the “culture” most companies are chasing after.

The media and LinkedIn are wrong. Hear me out.

Culture has a deeper meaning and purpose than engaging and satisfying employees. Culture and morale are not the same. Culture refers to a group or an entire organization, while the concepts of engagement and satisfaction are aspects of individuals. I can be satisfied, but I can’t be anything more than one part of a group that shares a culture. This is an important point because often when culture is equated with engaging or satisfying employees, the rationale is usually based on maximizing outcomes that are at the individual level such as staying with the employer, performing at high effort levels, recommending the org as a great place to work, and having confidence in future success. Yes, it is possible to measure the percentage of individuals in an organization who stay, work hard, promote the company, and so on, but these are not shared decisions. I don’t stay at my employer based on a group decision, but just on my own decision. Clearly, organizations should foster engagement and satisfaction, but only to an extent.

Why do I say, “to an extent?” First, a typical CultureIQ client has engagement scores above benchmarks, but has culture dimension scores below benchmarks (agility is a common culprit here). In the past, the knee-jerk reaction would be to act on the strongest drivers of engagement that also had low scores, which are typically career development, senior leadership communication, and recognition. These are all important elements, but are they the best elements to act upon if the organization is suffering from not being agile enough to recognize and capitalize on market trends? If leaders specifically said they need a culture where employees listen to customers, share the information, and experiment with solutions to their problems, then aren’t these also important elements to act upon? I argue that these agility elements are far more important than improving on drivers of engagement because getting more individuals to (a) try harder, (b) recommend the company, and (c) intend to stay with the company is not a direct approach to improving agility. Besides, if engagement scores are already very high, wouldn’t time and resources be better spent developing agile behavior patterns? 

Focusing on engagement instead of what the organization needs from its culture has other problems. Consider the common idea that the organization needs to retain its employees. It does not make sense to focus on retaining individuals if they do not work in a manner consistent with how the group needs to work. Let me use two examples. First, if an employee is a high performer who wants to stay, but this person consistently treats coworkers inappropriately, the organization is likely better off not retaining that person. Assuming this individual is not able to change this behavior, it makes sense to get the bad apple out. But what about an employee who is a high performer and wants to stay, but does not like working collaboratively? The person is not rude or even disliked. This is just someone who likes to operate as a lone wolf. Yet, the organization needs stronger coordination throughout the pack to achieve its business objectives. If the individual is not able to change this behavior, then this engaged employee may not be a good fit for the agile culture the organization is trying to build.

If you focus on building engagement and satisfaction, that likable lone wolf is encouraged to stay. If you focus on matching your culture to your strategic needs, that likable lone wolf may end up leaving. That is how engagement building is different from culture strategy. Engagement is about individual effort. Culture is about shared perceptions and thinking. At CultureIQ we want to help you engage those who are working a certain way, or if you prefer, we want to create a certain way of working that engages those who best fit that approach. Now we’re talking culture.

Why Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Dimensions of Culture: The Culture Framework