Culture vs. Engagement: They’re not the same thing

Culture vs. Engagement header



In our daily dealings, it is not uncommon to hear the terms ‘culture’ and ‘engagement’ spoken as though they are hyphenated. Two words, running together, to form a singular concept. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Take ‘Company X’ for example:

As part of their annual routine, Company X once again distributed their employee engagement survey to all 350 of its staff members. As the completed surveys came flooding back, it was clear that employee engagement levels were off the charts. Company X gave itself a pat on the back and celebrated yet another year of cultivating a great organisational culture.


Are your engagement survey results off the charts?


Hold up, stop the bus! We don’t want to burst any bubbles here, but your positive employee engagement results don’t automatically mean you have an exceptional company culture.

Let’s take a look at their goals and strategy. Company X is a digital marketing agency, that strives to be the most sought-after agency in the market, providing their clients with the most innovative and creative solutions and campaigns. When you set foot into their working environment, however, the scene tells a rather different story. You could hear a pin drop in that place. Everyone is in their own office or donning headphones, thoroughly engrossed in what they’re working on individually. Where’s the collaboration? Where’s the teamwork?

On a number of occasions, Company X has missed out on large accounts, as potential clients have not been satisfied with the level of creativity put into their campaign. Even though it’s clear that employees are highly engaged individually, it is almost impossible to carry out the company mission of innovation and creativity with absolutely no collaboration. The workplace culture simply doesn’t cultivate it.


Company X’s workplace mantra.


What are our engagement surveys measuring then?

In the academic literature, Schaufeli and colleagues (2002) have explained that engagement is a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that entails feelings of vigour, dedication and absorption. In other words, engaged employees feel energetic and resilient, they are enthusiastically involved in challenging and meaningful work, and are fully engrossed in what they’re doing.

Think about employee engagement as a concept that looks inward. It’s the feelings and attitudes that individuals form about their work and organisation. Measuring employee engagement has become common practice due to the string of positive outcomes linked to an engaged workforce. Some of these include:

  • Higher quality work
  • Increased productivity
  • Stronger customer satisfaction
  • A boost in revenue

No matter where you go, there will always be an abundance of proprietary surveys available in the market, each offering their own breakdown and criteria for measuring engagement. As measuring employee engagement has become more customary, we have entered a new era of employee engagement tools. Gone are the days of simple pen and paper, tick-box surveys, we now have a myriad of high-tech, Silicon Valley-esque products.



Typically, the surveys will assess factors such as leadership, learning and development, and communication, while the engagement score will tend to focus on advocacy, commitment and discretionary effort.

At the end of the day, no matter which survey you choose, you will always end up with some kind of variation of the delightfully colourful graphs, displaying a range of scores against a suite of metrics. From here, organisations can jump on in, analyse this data and make improvements where needed, to hopefully reap the benefits of an engaged workforce.

Although culture and engagement are not mutually exclusive, engagement can be an outcome of a positive workplace culture. If a workplace culture is good, employees are more likely to be excited by it, and engaged in their work.


Okay, well if that’s not organisational culture, what is?

While employee engagement looks inward, at someone’s personal feelings and attitudes, culture casts its eye the opposite way. Culture is an organisation’s personality, its DNA so to speak. It’s the company-wide consensus on values, expectations, and norms when it comes to work, and interacting with each other.

When a new project arrives at Company Y (a competitor of Company X), the first course of action is to choose the best possible project team and set up a brainstorming session. The team works collaboratively throughout the whole process, to inspire the most innovative approach that suits the needs of the client. That is a culture of innovation.


A project team at Company Y, brainstorming their next revolutionary idea.


But what shapes an organisation’s culture? Well, there are multiple factors that influence culture, including things like leadership, organisational structure, mindsets, behaviours, systems and symbols. A more specific example could be the way in which decisions are made, the people who are recognised or promoted, leaders acting as role models. All of these aspects can influence and shape an organisation’s culture.

If a company has a strong culture that aligns to its goals, they are far more likely to execute their strategic plans and priorities.

As I’m sure you’ve already gathered, measuring employee engagement is no substitute for a culture assessment. While an engagement survey measures the personal experiences of employees, a culture diagnostic examines the collective experience of employees. A culture diagnostic will unveil the fundamental values, expectations and assumptions that determine the way employees do things within the organisation.


Two happy business women in office


Once an organisation has analysed its culture and identified a few areas of opportunity, they can then embark on their culture transformation journey. During this experience, it is not uncommon for employee engagement to dip. Don’t let that get you down though, it doesn’t mean that it’s ineffective or the wrong fit for your organisation. The dip may just be a reflection of people adjusting to the change.



Where does that leave me now?

After reading this, you may be thinking that your engagement surveys have been a complete waste of time. They’re not. Employee engagement is extremely important for an organisation to function efficiently, but it simply isn’t culture. Don’t just stop at the engagement surveys, take it a step further and take a deep dive into the collective experience of working within your organisation.




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