Distinguishing between individual engagement and culture.

Engagement and culture are hot topics today.  While they are related they are also too often talked about as though they are one in the same.  Engagement is an individual measure and culture is a collective measure.  In our research at Denison we often see a positive correlation between engagement scores and culture scores.  But not always.  Occasionally we find individuals who describe themselves as highly engaged, yet indicate the culture – the system – is dysfunctional. Conversely, we occasionally see a highly effective culture with lower levels of individual engagement. You may wonder how that can be.

High engagement, low culture: personal commitment with organizational ambiguity.

We have seen situations where individuals work for not-for-profits with a strong mission or well-known sports programs and entertainment brands, and reported that they were passionate about the work and highly engaged. However, as they got a peak behind the curtain they also reported a culture that was dysfunctional in many ways. Departments failed to communicate with each other, goals were unclear, customers were often an afterthought and employees were treated as though they were lucky to work there.

It’s possible that this kind of situation occurs in organizations that attract employees based on their prestige or their mission. Employees derive a sense of personal pride from being associated with a particular institution, or at least for the perceived brand that institution evokes. As an individual they are psyched to work there.  That can translate into high engagement scores based on the individual employee’s personal feelings about their job, even though the system operates at a subpar level.

High culture, low engagement: a well-run machine.

It’s also possible to have a high functioning system that can leave people feeling like a “cog in the machine.”  The system is effective and efficient, yet on a personal level employees believe they are unable to have much impact. In some ways this may seem like the lesser of two evils, as an efficient and functional culture holds a stronger competitive edge than one which engages but performs poorly.

However, this “cog in the machine” perception may result in employees feeling as though they are not important and unable to have much influence over how work gets done. It can lead to higher rates of turnover, as employees leave the organization to find a new place where their work is noticed and appreciated.  Stories of people leaving large, wildly successful tech firms and returning to start-ups in an effort to regain that entrepreneurial spirit are just one example.

Aligning engaged employees through culture.

Organizations and leaders that view culture and engagement as one in the same should think twice.  And those who think they can drive organizational performance simply by engaging the individual employee – beware.  Much has been made of late of the enormous investments in engagement over the past decade with little change in the overall engagement level of employees.  The ROI of engagement is in question.  Focusing exclusively on engagement could undermine the overall strength and performance of the system. However if you are fortunate enough to have highly engaged employees you should seek to connect that passionate workforce to the larger mission and align their efforts in support of the system.

Meanwhile, organizations with a clear and aligned culture but low engagement should do more to encourage and recognize individual impact. Invest in employee skills.  Provide them opportunities to work on critical projects.  Increase their decision making authority.  We’ve learned a lot about the culture – engagement connection and we welcome the opportunity to share more of what we’ve learned with you.

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