Defining organisational culture shouldn’t be challenging, but there is confusion among non-HR professionals about approaching this subject. We suggest the confusion originates from overly complex definitions and blurry guidelines around culture and engagement and how the two work together. These definitions are not well understood and may limit discussion around work-related issues.
Start the discussion with your leaders
Our HR consulting experience has led to many discussions with business leaders and board directors about culture. Often, reference is made to implementing measures associated with boosting engagement (such as intent to stay, recommending the organisation as a place to work, or eNPS). In the same conversation, lack of organisational innovation and how that impacts strategy and growth aspirations regularly comes up.
Is there a difference between culture and engagement?
While some may believe distinguishing between the two doesn’t matter, our extensive experience in HR consulting services revealed how important it is to separate culture from engagement.
Consider the following:
Mary had a diverse range of experience and worked across several different sectors. She had a reputation for influencing and leading change in organisations. Mary was head-hunted to work for an organisation that needed to improve its back-office processes. The sector was contracting through a series of mergers and acquisitions. During the selection process, she connected with the Executive Manager.
When Mary joined the organisation, she found her manager incredibly supportive and inspirational, who created a great working environment for her team.
Mary couldn’t speak highly enough of the business in the first few months and recommended it to her friends. She worked hard and expended lots of energy reading and thinking about changes she could affect in the organisation. She felt this was a place she could work for the next five years.
Mary was working in several cross-functional teams who appeared enthusiastic about the opportunities to improve operational efficiency. Increasingly, she found people were reluctant to explore new ideas. People would say, “We tried that before, and it didn’t work,” or oppose any new ideas put forward. Mary spoke with her manager, who provided encouragement and support. This conversation recharged her, and she kept trying to influence change, but her frustration grew.
After six months, Mary was still loyal to her manager and enjoyed her immediate team. She completed the annual employee engagement survey, then went home and discussed the disconnect between her manager and her direct team versus the rest of the organisation with her partner. Her loyalty to her manager and her team kept her enthusiastic. However, she felt frustrated, disconnected from the organisation, and questioned whether the role was suitable for her.
The annual engagement survey results were published a few weeks later, and everyone seemed pleased with the results.
Let’s consider this fable in the context of culture and engagement by using simple definitions to highlight why it is essential to distinguish between the two.
Culture: the way I am expected to behave to fit in
Engagement: how I feel about working here (80% of how a person feels about working in an organisation is attributable to their direct manager)
Initially, Mary felt optimistic about her manager and direct team. She was saying great things about the business. She was putting in discretionary effort and had the intent to stay for some years.
Over time Mary was “learning” she had to stop putting forward innovations, keep her head down and only present safe ideas if she wanted to fit in. She was learning not to share her efficiency-improving ideas. Although she remained loyal to her sympathetic manager, Mary was at risk of leaving the business.
The impact of ignoring the two are connected
If the organisation doesn’t measure or discuss culture and ignores the link between staff attrition data and engagement, how would it know how many employees feel the same way as Mary?
If the organisation’s strategic intent is to become more efficient, innovate, and grow, is the culture aligned to this?
What strategies are in place to understand the oppositional nature Mary was experiencing?
The organisation has to understand why its employees are oppositional and resistant to change. If they address this through the lens of changing culture, they’ll start the journey towards improved culture and influence staff engagement.
How can you affect positive change in your organisation?
Our advice for organisations is this:
Define: articulate simple definitions for culture and engagement everyone can understand.
Educate: use your human resources team to spend time across all levels explaining the importance of positive workplace cultures and your goal to improve staff engagement.
Measure: identify the current culture (an HR-led survey can help with this – consult an HR advisor for assistance) and define the aspirational organisational culture.
Report: data should be triangulated from various sources, including operational performance, customer insights, HR data (turnover, length of service, unplanned absenteeism, internal “churn,” grievances, complaints, etc.).
The most important step is starting the discussion. Simply reviewing an HR survey with limited debate and questioning is not good practice.
Culture is directly related to long-term performance and staff engagement.
Why choose deliberatepractice as your HR consulting firm?
deliberatepractice is an HR consulting firm dedicated to providing organisations with practical advice and insights into aligning culture to an organisation’s purpose and strategy.
We offer practical solutions that make a difference. More than ever, as HR advisors, we need to create cultures where people can be their best and feel supported and appreciated by their employers.
Contact us today to start a discussion about the culture and engagement in your organisation.