Article: Does culture really outweigh engagement?


Does culture really outweigh engagement?

What is more critical building along-term culture or chasing the short-term metric of engagement?
Does culture really outweigh engagement?

Companies spend their resources on measuring employee engagement annually than on building strong cultures


The most effective organizations put equal emphasis on both strategy (what the organization wants to do) and culture (how the organizational goals will be met)


There is a continuing debate on whether ‘engagement’ and ‘culture’ in an organizational context are similar or different. Academic research has historically treated these two constructs as parallel, non-overlapping tracks. However, in practice, they are often used interchangeably. Business and HR Leaders are becoming more passionate about creating a healthy culture because of its many payoffs – the ability to attract and retain top talent, increased employee performance as well as profitability. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos attributes the company’s exceptional growth rate from $8 million to over $1 Billion in sales in just 8 years, entirely to its culture. Yet, more companies spend their resources on measuring employee engagement annually and sharing their employment engagement scores than building strong cultures.

Engagement represents employee perceptions and feelings on all aspects of an organization’s building blocks that drive performance and address both strategy formulation and implementation aspects such as leadership, policies, processes, practices, resources, products, markets, etc. It is about passion and the willingness to extend one’s discretionary effort to help the organization succeed. And high engagement occurs when employees are confident about the organization’s strategy and leadership, feel connected with the vision, and are committed to doing their best work.

However, although most organizations have similar building blocks, it is their deep-rooted culture that sets them apart. Culture is the underlying patterns of meaning within organizations. It includes the values, beliefs, history and traditions that reflect the foundations of an organization. It is an invisible yet unique, common identity – the shared worldview or mindset of those who belong. It influences the way people think and behave with regard to how they will respond to external and internal factors such as managerial decisions, external market conditions, etc.

A summary of the differences between engagement and culture are listed in the table (on next page). They vary in origin (the science behind the body of knowledge), theme (the topic or subject matter), definition (description of the term), creation (how it was initiated or formed), contributors (those things that sustain it), stability (ease to make a shift), observability (whether it is easily identifiable), and measurement (best way to evaluate). While culture is collective, enduring, implicit and about shared values; engagement is more individualistic, explicit, about work environment, leadership practices, company policies and work processes.

Culture and Engagement

Several analogies have been used to compare and contrast engagement and culture. Probably the most interesting is culture being likened to personality. Just like personality relates to what a person is, culture is something that an organization is. Engagement, on the other hand, like a mood, is a mental state involving feelings. The mood of someone can change rapidly depending on the emotions or situation they are facing whereas personality doesn’t change as quickly. Because culture is an engrained ‘mindset,’ it is relatively stable. On the other hand, engagement is a temporary transient state and engagement metrics are expected to fluctuate based on the psychological state of the individuals, which are driven in part by the conditions of the workplace.

The most effective organizations put equal emphasis on both strategy (what the organization wants to do) and culture (how the organizational goals will be met). Building and sustaining a strong culture takes deliberate effort and requires – (a) an open, ongoing, and multi-faceted communication, (b) ensuring all leadership practices, organizational systems and processes echo the desired culture, and (c) having mechanisms in place that monitor culture. Leaders should spend their time building their long-term culture instead of chasing the short-term metric of engagement for the following reasons:

Culture is the foundation – Culture is at the core of all organizational strategic initiatives. It is synergistic and integral with what an organization strives to accomplish (strategy). Job satisfaction, commitment and connectedness are all manifestations of culture.

Culture is about 'we' – Culture is a shared or collective worldview that sets the direction for how a group will take on organizational strategies, goals and priorities. It is the glue that binds the team together and focuses on the collective result instead of individual goals.

Culture is durable – Culture is relatively stable and therefore a long-term solution for organizational effectiveness.  This is why it is important to maintain and build upon strong cultures.  Conversely, it is also why it is a leadership challenge to enhance weak cultures.

Culture is real – Culture is the litmus test for leadership credibility.  In strong cultures, the values espoused are also the values that are lived by the organization everyday.  There is a true connection between what is said and what is done.

There is a reason why many leaders choose to ignore culture and focus on the more metric-friendly engagement. Culture as a concept is harder to isolate, quantify and explain and is also challenging to navigate, lead and develop. Building a strong culture takes much more in terms of persistence, passion, patience and perseverance than reacting to engagement scores. However, the results of a positive culture far outweigh the efforts. It influences how team members interact with one another and their customers, which in turn strengthens the organizational health and business performance. Chasing an improvement of a few points relative to the norm on an engagement survey provides an organization with a quick fix, a chance to be a little bit better than average for a little while. Whereas, on the contrary, developing a great culture provides the opportunity for a business to create a unique, sustainable competitive advantage that is much more valuable and enduring. Co-creating a long-term worldview (culture) instead of obsessing over short-term measures of transient emotions (engagement) is critical for any organization.

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Topics: Culture, Employee Engagement

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