What lies beneath: how changing culture can boost employee engagement

How changing culture can boost employee engagement

Changing culture is a critical element to long-term, sustainable improvements in employee engagement, and Jerome Parisse-Brassens explains that HR needs to understand what is happening beneath the surface of an organisation

Engagement and culture are two topics that often get confused with each other in transformation agendas. They are, however, quite different, and it is critical that HR is able to differentiate the two if they want to have a sustainable impact on the workplace.

Engagement can be defined as “the extent to which employees commit to something or someone in their organisation, and how hard they work and how long they stay as a result of that commitment.”

Culture, on the other hand, can be defined as “the patterns of behaviour that are encouraged, discouraged or tolerated, by people and systems over time.” Engagement provides a gauge on how individuals feel about their work, whereas culture is a measure of how people go about doing their work.

Other differences are that engagement is time-specific and quickly outdated. For many, by the time the results are communicated and cascaded, things will have changed, and the data no longer reflects the reality of the organisation. Because engagement is sensitive to short-term activities designed to reinvigorate employee’s commitment such as new perks or salary increases, engagement measures can vary dramatically in a short period of time. On the other hand, culture is less sensitive to external influences.

One of the other differences between the two concepts is that engagement is based on an individual’s opinion. For this reason, results collected from an individual perspective have limited relevance when applied in other contexts or used to predict reactions or behaviours of the collective of the organisation. Questions in a culture assessment are about patterns, about the organisation as a whole rather than the “I” which may reflect how individuals might be feeling on any particular day.

“Engagement is what you see above the surface and culture is what lies underneath”

Looking below the surface of employee engagement
With many of our clients, we see engagement levels to either start to plateau after some time with results varying little despite continuing efforts, or results start to decline. This is because the underlying issue may not sit with engagement, but with culture. Engagement is therefore not the right data to use to understand what is happening “below the surface.”

If you think about the iceberg model, the root cause of issues will be happening under the surface of the water and are not visible. Applying this principle, engagement is what you see above the surface and culture is what lies underneath.

With culture, the collective beliefs and assumptions of the organisation, which guide behaviour and influence what people do, how they interact and consequently how the organisation performs, lie in the lower part of the iceberg. Understanding these drivers is fundamental to understanding and changing your culture, and in turn, your engagement.

A deeper understanding of culture
Getting to the levels where values, beliefs and feelings reside requires more than a rating scale on a statement. Unlike engagement, true measures of culture will involve opportunities for interviews or focus groups where people are asked “why” for observed behaviours or “why not” for absent behaviours. Without qualitative data at this level, culture cannot truly be measured. This information will complement the more classic quantitative data from a culture survey.

HR directors who use engagement as proxy for culture run the risk of using the wrong measure. Using engagement, which is a lagging indicator, to pilot the organisation and determine whether employees are doing the right thing to support the strategic objectives, is dangerous.

“HR directors who use engagement as proxy for culture run the risk of using the wrong measure”

Research clearly shows that you need people to be engaged to boost results, but you also need people to behave the way you want them to. There is nothing to say that the employees of Wells Fargo were not engaged when they were busy illegally creating credit card accounts for their clients. If anything, the data shows they were engaged. Yet they were behaving in a way that led to massive losses of reputation and money for the bank.

Why HR should measure the culture pulse
So, what does this mean? Should HR drop the engagement survey and replace it with a culture survey? Not at all. Engagement is a powerful tool that monitors the extra effort that people are ready to make in the interest of the organisation. As mentioned above, it can reveal deeper issues that are often cultural. This is why conducting a culture assessment adds value to your people survey.

Engagement used to be measured annually, whereas today, many organisations are conducting pulse surveys two or three times a year or even moving to ongoing measurement using specific apps or other tools. Culture should also be measured on a regular basis.

I like to advise my HR clients to assess their whole culture every second or third year, but to also pulse those cultural attributes they are working on several times a year. An ongoing measure of the shift happening in those areas where they are focussing their culture effort is indispensable. Without it, it will be difficult to demonstrate that change is happening, and budgets may be reallocated to other areas of the business.

The people and engagement survey is a good indicator of what is happening in the organisation at the ‘visible’ level. With a measure of culture to provide an understanding of what drives people to do the things they do, HR teams have all the data they need to pilot the organisation with the long-term in mind.