Why you should put culture first, engagement second


How much money do businesses waste because they’ve got their culture wrong?

Think back to the most dysfunctional place you’ve ever worked.

Remember how much time was wasted through senior management talking past each other, miscommunication down the pyramid, siloed departments, disengaged employees? Wasted time, wasted money.

No wonder that leaders increasingly see workplace culture and employee engagement as a vital business issue.

A recent Deloitte report, Culture and Engagement: The Naked Organization, showed that 87 per cent of organisations cite culture and engagement as one of their top challenges, and 50 per cent call the problem “very important.”

Right they are – but is it right to lump culture and employee engagement together? At The House, we believe there is value in treating them separately.

In our work helping clients bring their values to life, we’ve seen again and again that the best results come when you address culture first and employee engagement second.

What ‘employee engagement’ does and doesn’t do

We’re not saying that employee engagement isn’t valuable – employee engagement surveys ask very important questions. Am I clear about my role? Do I have access to the tools I need to do my job? Do I feel valued for the work I do?

But here are some of the vitally important questions that employee engagement programmes rarely ask:

  • What are your values as an individual and how do they align with the purpose and values of the company?
  • What are you getting out of working here – and how does that affect what you’re putting in?
  • Why do you work here and not at a competitor?

These are deeper questions of values and culture. Culture goes beyond engagement and speaks to the emotional, purposeful element in an employee’s motivation.

It’s about inspiring people to bring their full self to work – not to turn up in a suit of armour.

Put simply, strong workplaces aren’t built on strong engagement: they are built on shared beliefs, value-led behaviours and an inspiring common purpose. In other words, a common culture.

Being engaged, satisfied, motivated and equipped to do your job is obviously important; and we feel the best way of ensuring this is to establish a common purpose, build values around it and express those values through your behaviour.

That’s culture – and it drives engagement. Without that piece in place, what’s the point of measuring engagement?

Don’t worry: culture CAN be measured

Part of the attraction of traditional employee engagement is that it is relatively easy to measure – or at least, easy to create reports, metrics and statistics that look credible.

The risk is that engagement becomes a once-a-year, box-ticking exercise, designed to prove that everything’s OK rather than actually making sure that everything’s OK. By contrast, a strong values-led culture keeps your organisation healthy and your employees inspired.

Focusing on culture rather than employee engagement doesn’t mean giving up on measurement. Culture is an outcome.

There are tools that can make culture tangible, such as the Cultural Value Assessments developed by the Barrett Values Centre. These tools can help you discover just how much money is slipping through the cracks because of cultural entropy – the amount of dysfunction, frustration and wasted resources in an organisation.

Building and maintaining a healthy culture is as much of a priority for the CEO and CFO as it is for the HR director, arguably more so.

Can your business afford to focus solely on engagement at the expense of culture?

Graham Massey is the Business Head of The Housea consultancy that believes valuable businesses are born out of purpose. 


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  1. Great read, especially the line “Why do you work here and not at a competitor?”. I shall use that lots.

    Perhaps I was lucky with my company choices – 12 years of doing Burger King things, then a dozen more at J D Wetherspoon allows me to declare that I didn’t just engage with both companies, but enjoyed the wedding, the disco and the bar afterwards, along with making the honeymoon last as long as it could.

    But I get scared hearing the notion that companies should be measuring their “culture” in any way other than what they do every day delivering their values honestly.

    That’s when the passion from a company’s culture disappears – because it’s just not fun anymore and people lose interest. No culture is perfect and never should be in my eyes. It makes a dull word.