Understanding the difference between culture and engagement

5 min read
Difference Between Engagement And Culture

The terms ‘culture’ and ‘engagement’ are often used interchangeably, leading to fuzziness in language and measurement that holds organisations back. In this article we’ll clear up this confusion once and for all, by exploring the difference between culture and engagement; and what to do about it.

Culture vs engagement: a new era

The Twenty-Teens belonged to engagement, but the Twenty-Twenties belong to culture. That’s why understanding the difference between culture and engagement is so essential to driving business performance.

Within the business world, appreciation of the importance of company culture is growing, as leaders begin to understand how critical culture is when it comes to achieving their strategic goals.

In recent years we’ve seen the concept of engagement riding high and truly having its moment, with HR and leadership teams looking to engagement surveys to measure and track engagement as a metric for business performance – but could it be that the ‘Era of Engagement’ is ending, and that we’re now entering the ‘Era of Culture’?

Leaders are now starting to realise that, although it’s undoubtedly a crucial metric, engagement may not directly correlate with business performance, and even though a workforce may have high engagement levels, the business as a whole could be struggling, with other performance indicators lagging.

So if we really are in the dawn of a new era, where organisations understand the importance of measuring and tracking culture as well as engagement, it begs the question: what’s the difference between the two?

What is engagement?

Employee engagement is a HR concept that describes the level of enthusiasm, motivation and dedication a person feels toward their job. It’s based on several factors, including trust, integrity, mutual commitment and communication between an organisation and its people.

Employee engagement surveys therefore tend to measure individual sentiment across a company’s workforce, and, as is the case with feelings/sentiment, things will change day to day and hour by hour, so it’s important to measure engagement regularly. There’s no question that engagement is important and affects the chances of business success, contributing to organisational and individual performance, productivity and wellbeing – but it’s certainly not the whole story when it comes to organisational performance.

What are engagement surveys?

For years, engagement surveys have proved a useful tool for HR and leadership teams, serving several functions, including: measuring individual sentiment; providing a feedback mechanism to leadership to build communication channels and connection between employees, HR and Leadership teams; and enabling leadership to identify trackable problem areas across the business that may require attention.

Engagement surveys can also include universal measurements such as a Net Promoter Score (NPS), which enables companies to compare engagement scores and benchmark themselves against industry averages.

Engagement surveys allow leaders to quantify engagement – but in terms of organisational performance, it’s not just about raising the engagement number, it’s about which numbers you raise. Engagement data is undoubtedly important, allowing leaders to quantify sentiment and perhaps understand target areas where a shift is needed, but in reality, does higher engagement really lead to increased business performance?

What is culture?

Culture is an entirely different construct to engagement, although the two are often conflated. Whilst engagement is individual perspective and feeling, culture is manifest as group behaviours, or ‘how things are done around here’ and how a company operates as a whole.

When we talk about culture, we think of it in terms of collective behaviours, rather than individual behaviours: an individual can’t have a culture, only a group can – and groups tend to have ways in which people interact with one another.

In fact, culture is created, reinforced and shaped in each and every moment with each and every interaction between people. Culture is comprised of visible and invisible aspects: there are beliefs, fears, affiliations and feelings that can’t be seen, heard, or easily measured – but these invisible elements of culture drive outwardly visible, measurable behaviours. These lived collective behaviours that make up a business and how it operates can, therefore, be measured and tracked against what is required to drive your strategic goals as a company.

Measuring engagement vs measuring culture

There are two key distinctions to make in measuring engagement and measuring culture:

Firstly, engagement looks at the workforce at an individual level, meaning you gain insights into each individual’s perspective: how they feel about the organisation and their personal views on specific questions asked.

Culture, on the other hand, looks at the collective behaviours in a company and the ways things are done; and can be measured either at an entire company level, or within departments, functions, or different geographies. Sub-cultures almost always exist within an organisation, usually increasing with the size of the organisation.

These collective behaviours are what actually describe an organisation and how work gets done. Once this has been diagnosed, you can link it to strategy because ultimately, a strategy isn’t going to be successful unless the behaviours at play within the organisation are aligned with those necessary to be successful.

When measuring engagement on the other hand, understanding how an employee feels within their role, although useful, doesn’t help leadership teams in identifying what needs to be changed in order to drive strategy. 

Engagement is an output, culture is an input

When measuring engagement you are usually measuring an output signal, rather than an input. If you wish to change something, you should focus on the input.

Engagement is an output of culture and you should therefore focus on defining and measuring your culture, in order to improve your engagement. Measuring culture is the next evolutionary step following on from engagement surveys and is a vital key performance indicator for leadership teams.

The misconceptions around measuring culture – not least that it can’t be measured – is changing. Culture can and should be measured and tracked in a similar fashion to other vital business performance metrics like P/L and Balance sheets.

Culture drives strategy, so why wouldn’t you manage it on the same level as these business frameworks?

Measuring culture: an urgent challenge in 2022

This shift in perspective on culture – from a fuzzy, engagement-like concept to that of a measurable, trackable, core driver of strategic results – is well underway.

Many factors are converging to elevate culture to the top of the agenda. The pace of change continues to accelerate, driven by advances in technology that spur new market and increasing competition; the mass shift towards hybrid working and ever-higher expectations of top talent; and the rising complexity of life and work that most of us feel in our day-to-day lives, with heavy workloads, big ambitious and tough targets.

It’s no wonder that leaders today are all shooting for the same thing: exceptional performance. And the only way to deliver exceptional performance – to hit the aggressive goals we set for our organisations – is by getting your culture right.

Culture15 is your complete toolkit for tracking culture change. CEOs and Exec Teams at world-leading organisations use Culture15 analytics to ensure success by aligning their culture with what they need to execute their strategy. If you’d like find out how to define the culture you need, diagnose the culture you have any close the gap, talk to our team.

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