Photo by Octavio Fossatti

Over Christmas, like many, I had time to catch up with family and friends I don’t get to see as often. Aside from the usual exchange of life updates, these conversations usually turn towards questions of work, namely: ‘What is it you’re doing at the moment?’. My usual reply is that I work as a consultant, specialising in organisational culture and behaviour change. However, rather than the polite nods and blank faces that I normally get, this year I noticed more interesting responses to this answer:

“My company is big on culture, it’s so important to make sure everyone is happy. We get team lunches every month, and free gym membership.”

“We’ve got a culture problem at my company, our engagement scores were so low this year, everyone is leaving.”

And even this from my dear 80-year-old nan:

“Oh, we didn’t worry about that in my day. Everyone just turned up did a hard days work and got paid. None of this foosball table nonsense.”

It struck me that when I spoke about culture, people were assuming I meant employee engagement. A quick Google on the subject shows that they are not alone. Engagement and culture are often mentioned in the same breath, even by those within the field. Indeed, one of the primary methods companies use to measure their culture is through their employee engagement survey. This is often a key selling point from the survey providers themselves.

Readers, we have a problem.

Employee engagement does not equal organisational culture and here’s why you should care.

Don’t get me wrong, employee engagement is an important thing to monitor, and it is definitely related to the culture of an organisation but there are some key differences between the two:

  • Employee engagement is the feelings that individuals have towards their work at the company. It reflects how motivated and bought-in an employee is to the organisation and their role there
  • Organisational culture is the behaviour the organisation displays as a collective. This behaviour is the response to your Organisation Operating System i.e. the unique structures, processes and communication methods every organisation creates that send signals to employees on how they should behave to be accepted in the organisation. Remember this, we’ll come back to it.

This difference is important to understand because whilst having high engagement amongst employees is usually a good thing, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you therefore have the right behaviours for your organisation. Behaviours are tangible actions you can see day-to-day such as decision-making processes or using open communication channels.

Every organisation has a strategy that will be better enabled by certain behaviours over others. Say you need to become more innovative. That requires the behaviour of sharing and open communication. But if you are a traditional organisation that has people who are used to and comfortable with keeping their work private you can easily have high engagement but the wrong behaviours needed to achieve your strategy.

Additionally, how employees feel about their work at an organisation is easily affected by several temporary “climate” factors, such as a bad manager, an office move, or a particularly challenging project or organisational change. These factors can change from week to week, day to day and even hour to hour! Culture, on the other hand, is deeply engrained behavioural norms that take a long time to shift.

This is why using engagement surveys as your sole measure of culture is unhelpful and misleading. Not only could any number of temporary “climate” factors influence scores, but they only tell you how your employees feel not how they are behaving.

So what do I measure instead?

The holy grail for organisations is to have the right employees who are motivated by the right culture. What you are seeking is alignment. The gap between the actual organisational culture and the culture employees prefer to work in is where engagement starts to become a problem, as Alex Osterwalder illustrated this week.

Those with the strongest cultures are crystal clear on what behaviours they need to best achieve their business goals and actively shape and tweak their Organisational Operating System (Remember, from earlier? The structures, processes and communication methods used by an organisation) to optimise those behaviours.

The best way to do this is through measurement. Google have known this for a long time and are still one of the best examples of a Quantified Org. Don’t be fooled into thinking they measure what makes Googlers productive and happy – what they actually do is obsessively measure employee behaviour, and then use this data to identify what needs attention and implement small tweaks that work to influence change over time.

Here’s how you can get started with achieving alignment between your culture and engagement:

  • First, get clear on what behaviours you need in your organisation. Consider your strategic goals, mission and purpose as an organisation and articulate the behaviours needed to achieve them. If you need help getting started, we have a Quantified Org diagnostic you can take for free!
  • Once you have identified your required behaviours, break these down into activity that can be measured. Consider all the data sets your organisation may have at its disposal that could give indicators to behaviour (e.g. ESN data, CRM data, HR systems data). Try to combine data-sets where possible for each behaviour to give a more rounded measure.
  • Employee surveys and focus groups can also be useful for getting an indication of behaviour, but only if they are written with behaviour and not sentiment or feelings in mind. Bear this in mind when working with your survey providers. Out of the box engagement surveys will not measure culture.
  • That being said getting a handle on employee engagement is still important to understand how aligned your employees are with the behaviours you are trying to encourage. Annual 20-page surveys are overkill, employee sentiment changes far too often for these to be of any use. Instead, take small frequent light-weight pulse checks on how employees are feeling about things. Save the more in-depth surveys for your culture and behaviour measurement, as these take longer to shift.
  • Create dashboards that show how your behaviour and engagement alignment is tracking over time. Use the results to start to focus attention and culture change efforts on problem areas.
  • Rinse & repeat as often as possible

On a final note, the more you can be open and share this process with your employee base the better. Communicate what and why you are measuring these behaviours, share the data and dashboards, and empower them to make changes that improve the scores.

Not only will this give them clarity on the direction the organisation is taking, it also makes it clear and empowers them with a role in achieving it. Taking this distributed approach is the only way we have seen sustainable change take root in organisations.

If you would be interested in understanding how we can help you with your own Quantified Org alignment, please get in touch.