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Engagement a symptom; culture the cause

It is well accepted that an engaged workforce delivers multiple benefits – increased discretionary effort, improved teamwork, greater staff retention and better communication. All of which lead to enhanced organisational performance. Little wonder then that many organisations have taken to measuring employee engagement on a regular basis. But what is it exactly that engagement surveys measure? In most cases it is about how employees feel about their work and their organisation. While there is no question that this is important, without further analysis to understand why employees feel the way they do, management are often left to take a hit-and-miss approach and guess at the changes required to boost engagement.

The reasons for employees being disengaged varies greatly, but some of the common ones are:

  • they don’t feel that their capabilities are being developed,
  • they don’t feel that their contribution is recognised and rewarded,
  • they don’t believe their managers practise what they preach, and
  • they don’t see how what they do on a day-to-day basis links to the performance of the organisation.

Rarely will there be only one reason and almost never will the reason be the same for all employees. So not surprisingly, a one-size fits all solution to engagement often fails to achieve the desired outcomes.

Disengagement, like high blood pressure, is a symptom that things aren’t operating at an optimal level. But to really understand the cause of these symptoms (and whether your organisation just needs to reduce stress or requires a coronary bypass) it is necessary to examine the culture of the organisations itself. How does ‘the way we do things around here’ impact on people’s experience of the organisation and their work?

Employee engagement measures often say very little about how the organisation works as a whole, which can make it difficult to define a path to improvement. This often results in organisations taking ‘band-aid’ approaches to issues that are in fact critical to organisational health.

The other risk in looking at engagement in isolation, without regard to the culture in which employees work, is that the engagement results may yield a ‘false positive’. For example, it is easy for organisations to have very high engagement scores in individual teams, but also be facing serious organisational problems, such as people operating in silos or in a manner that is misaligned with the broader organisational strategy and values. Without the broader cultural perspective, organisations can be lulled into a false sense of security by purely paying attention to engagement scores.

If organisations are to go beyond just treating the symptoms of disengagement and get to the cultural cause of their problems, then it is critical they understand both the level of employee engagement and the cultural strengths and weaknesses within the organisation. Only then can the organisation be sure it is paying attention to the right issues and taking an appropriately coordinated approach to leverage the full potential of it’s people.

Diarmid Lee