Cultural Inertia: Improving Employee Engagement With Small Steps

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Improving Employee Engagement

Improving employee engagement and company culture have an enormous impact on a company’s productivity, profitability, and overall success. With stakes this high, it’s no surprise that you’re looking for strategies and principles that can help you establish a unique culture and grow it into something that provides these benefits.  

Are you ready to hear about one report that’s going to provide some insight? California professors associated with the Center for Economic Policy and Research released research around an engagement and culture concept called cultural inertia. The professors found that the tendency for a company’s culture to stay the same increases with age and builds cultural uniformity over time. Which is to say, the older your company is, the greater the resistance it feels to variation; over time, it develops a stronger identity that that is more likely to stay the same and less likely to succumb to change.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg — here are a few more points the study elaborates on that will help any organization focused on improving employee engagement and company culture:

Companies Need Cultural Homogeneity and Diversity

This report is a great opportunity to consider nuanced definitions of diversity and cultural homogeneity. The professors conclude that, “a more homogeneous cultural structure provides the organization’s agents with better incentives to undertake culture-specific investments, which improves the organization’s performance.” So, the greater alignment amongst employees, the better they’ll perform.

But it’s important to note that this kind of homogeneity does not refer to a lack of diversity in personal characteristics of staff members. Rather, it refers to the shared attitude, vision, and values that your team members bring to the table. In fact, a recent HBR article discusses how the most successful teams have a healthy mix of personalities represented.

Cultural homogeneity and alignment, then, is an important goal to have for your efforts in improving employee engagement and building company culture in addition to diversity (read more about why diversity is important and perks to help foster a more diverse culture here).

Small Steps Deliver Big Returns

This report is also great news for the cultural initiatives you’ve already started — if applied consistently and intentionally, they’re bound to help your company build up this inertia and make your culture efforts less difficult over time. The more carefully you hire for culture and the more culturally-aligned your internal programs are, the stronger your company culture will become, and the more engaged your employees will feel in the company culture.

In other words, the ”culture fit” interviews you’re doing will, in fact, lead to cultural cohesion and alignment. The professors write that, “organizations accumulate capital over time in the form of a stock of agents who are good fits for the culture… in which they operate.” This helps with improving employee engagement because “agents have to make [culture-specific] investments [such as] forming new habits, acquiring certain social skills, etc.”

For a visual, take a look at the graphic below from our article Changing Corporate Culture 101.

improving employee engagement

If you looking to drive meaningful change, even the smallest of behaviors and policies matter, because these are the levers for change. Over time they will add up to change the deep-rooted underlying assumptions that make up your culture. therefore, when developing a new program, ask yourself: “Does this align with the culture we want to build? With the values we promote?”

What should your takeaway be from this report?

First, that the smallest efforts can have a snowball effect on growing your culture and improving employee engagement. Instead of focusing only on wide-sweeping changes, you should also align your initial hiring habits and smaller behaviors with the culture you want to build.

Second, that if you’re feeling resistance to change within your older organization, it’s not just in your head. Cultural inertia can make culture change particularly hard in older organizations because both good behaviors and bad behaviors have been reinforced over time. If you’re working on a new initiative, understand that some of the cultural behaviors you’re working with are deeply established and will take more time and energy to uproot than they would in a younger organization.

Finally, you can also takeaway that building culture does not mean building clones. There’s a wide array of personal characteristics that can fit into the same culture because culture refers to a set of shared values and processes, not individual features. Over time, each hire you make — through identifying value-alignment in diverse candidates — contributes to the culture’s overall inertia to stay cohesive and effective.

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