What is more important: Culture or Engagement?

We often have clients come to us and say “we like what you’re doing with culture, but what about employee engagement?” There seems to be a question of whether they are distinct and separate signifiers of organizational health, or whether they work together toward the same end.

Our research has consistently shown a relationship between the health of an organization’s culture and the strength of its employees’ individual engagement. Understanding that relationship is a key to ultimate organizational success.

Engagement without culture misses the forest for the trees

It is possible to have a high level of employee engagement that disguises broader problems with an organization’s culture. For instance, individuals within an R&D department might be highly engaged in their work. Their colleagues in HR might share similar enthusiasm about their job satisfaction. But both can be completely blind as to where the company overall is headed, and might harbor some secret doubts about the leadership.

In the end, individual engagement is useful for predicting individual job performance. But it is a less reliable indicator of overall cultural health. Part of the reason for this is that employee satisfaction surveys often fail to provide actionable steps for increasing both culture AND engagement.

For instance, a question such as “how happy are you to come to work in the morning” might be nice to know, but it wouldn’t tell you how to make someone happier when they come into work. On the other hand, “do you believe leaders and managers practice what they preach?” gives a much firmer indication of what an organization can do to improve both engagement AND culture.

Build a strong culture, and engagement will follow

Culture has a big impact on an individual’s engagement. This is because organizational culture is about the lager construct. As engaged employees feed back into an organization’s culture, they form the systems, behaviors, and mindsets that both create and transform a culture.

It’s true that a healthy culture can’t exist without engaged employees. But from the perspective of an individual, being surrounded by a strong, empowering culture will do more to boost that individual’s engagement while the reverse is not true: one engaged employee is highly unlikely to transform a flawed culture.

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