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Corporate Culture vs. Employee Engagement: What’s the Difference?

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

The last thing you need while you’re on the front lines running your company is for good people to walk out the door.

When it happens, the time and money invested in recruiting and training them go up in smoke, and the strengths they brought to the table leave a vacuum on the team. Their departure is a drain on you, your other staff, and the functionality of the organization.

It’s no wonder that the topic of retention is on every business leader’s mind. And when they comb the internet or talk to others about what it takes to keep and attract the best employees, two terms always come up:

  • Engagement
  • Culture

There are many resources on the market that verify the impact that both things have on employee retention. But information is often unclear about the difference between the two.

People often confuse one term for the other or simply think they’re the same thing. To muddy things further, the intangibility of “engagement” and “culture” makes them both hard to assess.

We’ve helped hundreds of clients understand the scope and impact of culture and engagement at CultureWise. Let’s look at what both terms mean, how they interact with one another, and how you can leverage them to improve your business.

They’re Not the Same

The first thing to know is that the terms are not interchangeable. While engagement and culture play vital roles in employee retention, they affect the workplace in very different ways.  

Here’s how they’re defined:

Engagement: the commitment an employee has to the organization and its goals.
Culture: the attitudes and behaviors that represent operational norms within an organization.

In other words, engagement refers to how much a person likes their job, and culture is the organization’s environment—good or bad—that drives the level of engagement.

If the prevailing attitude and general behavior are poor, engagement will be weak. But a healthy corporate culture builds enthusiasm and loyalty.

Engagement—It’s a Relationship

William Kahn coined the term “employee engagement” in 1990. The professor of organizational behavior at Boston University purposely chose the word engagement because, as he said in an interview with Workforce:

“Engagement is a word that suggests betrothal — the decision to commit to a role, an identity, and a relationship that offers fulfillment.” 

While it may sound a little extreme, the term really fits when you consider how many hours people spend on the job. If they’re going to devote most of their time to an organization, they want to be personally fulfilled in what they do there every day.

When Kahn published his groundbreaking research about the topic, he noted that engagement happens when “people bring themselves fully into their work.” They’re more likely to be happy and satisfied with their job if they’re mentally and emotionally connected to it.

His viewpoint contradicted that era’s prevailing business standard that emphasized a top-down method of merely pushing people to work harder. That kind of strong-arm mentality still lingers in many companies and is a key factor prompting people to sever relationships with employers.

For employees to be willing to make a long-term commitment, an organization needs to be the kind of place that makes people want to stay.

The 3 Levels of Employee Engagement

Engagement doesn’t have an on/off switch. In fact, there are three broad levels of employee engagement:

  1. Actively Engaged. These people love coming to work every day and make the most of it. Their passion and commitment translate to exceptional performance, and they inspire everyone around them.
  2. Actively Disengaged. People in this group are miserable at work. They don’t contribute much to the organization, and their toxic attitude is often contagious.
  3. Not Engaged. These workers show up every day and do what’s required, but they’re performing their jobs without significant commitment or enthusiasm.

According to a 2019 Gallop poll, engagement has improved over the past decade. But their research shows a troubling statistic: 56% of employees still fall into the third, “Not Engaged” group. These people are often good workers, but they typically have one eye on the clock while the other is scanning for greener pastures.

As a business leader, you don’t want actively disengaged people to hang around. But those who are simply not engaged are another story.

They’re often assets to your team and the ones who will leave gaps if they go. The challenge is in how to restore their connection to the organization.

Company Culture Cultivates Engagement

Recruiting powerhouse Robert Half offers insight into what factors into job satisfaction. In a recent blog, they suggest 14 effective employee retention strategies that include mentorship, teamwork, and acknowledgment. These are all topics that, when done well, drive engagement. But there’s an important distinction to make about them.

The engine behind these and other critical factors affecting engagement is a strong corporate culture.

The culture of an organization is inherent in the actions and attitudes of its people. If a company has a strong culture, these shared behaviors create an environment where workers are more plugged into and proud of what they do every day. They are engaged.

And the environment isn’t limited to a shared physical location. The cultural environment is a powerful grid that not only connects people who work face-to-face, but also those who work in multiple company facilities or virtually from home.  

Culture Shift

Since culture seems to be the key to engagement, you may be wondering what you can do to transform your organization’s culture to maximize retention. You’ve probably already put time and effort into shaping your culture, and more than likely you based it on some core values that you want your team to follow. Why isn’t that enough?

Stated core values are usually meaningful to employees, but unless they can connect these values with how they operate every day, they won’t have much impact. The guiding principles need to be brought to life. In companies with great cultures, people don’t just talk about their values. They act on them.

If you provide a way for employees to embody the values that define your company, you’ll create a place people won’t want to leave.

How to Improve Your Culture

To make this happen, your company’s culture needs a system that defines and reinforces the actions and attitudes that drive personal and organizational success.

The first step is to determine whether your team can accomplish this in-house or needs professional help. That decision is usually based on budget, internal expertise, and time limitations. Some companies may have the capacity to plan, build, and operate a culture system.

If you’ve decided you can implement a culture initiative on your own, one of the best references to guide you through the process is Culture by Design by David Friedman, CultureWise founder and CEO. This book is an excellent “how-to” manual with simple, practical steps to improve and operationalize your culture.

If your company lacks the necessary internal resources, professional help can revitalize your culture so that it not only fortifies engagement, but it also enhances overall performance.

A culture operating system like  CultureWise is the most efficient way to bolster company culture.  Visit the website to learn more about how the Standard and Custom versions of CultureWise have helped hundreds of companies become more successful, or request specific information to help you make the right decision for your company.

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