Design a Culture Around People to Improve Engagement

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May 9, 2017

There’s a substantial body of research showing organizations with highly engaged employees have 37% less absenteeism, 21% higher productivity and have 19% more income than companies with mostly disengaged employees. But what determines an employee’s engagement and how can organizations take action to influence employee engagement? These questions should be top of mind for every organization today, especially when you consider that four years ago Gallup calculated low engagement costs U.S. employers alone as much as $550 billion a year.

When it comes to driving engagement, one of the most important areas today’s leaders need to look is at company culture.

According to the Theory of Work Adjustment, work environment characteristics such as organizational culture have a direct influence on both employee engagement and satisfaction. Aligning work environment characteristics such as culture with the individual’s characteristics, such as needs, interests and values, has a powerful effect when it comes to promoting engagement. According to research by CEB, for every 5,000 employees it would save a company $67 million annually.

While any organization would jump at the chance to achieve that kind of bottom line improvement, most don’t know where to start. Aligning individuals and organizational culture may seem like a daunting challenge, but it can be accomplished by taking concrete action to:

  • Explicitly define your workplace culture.
  • Survey employees to better understand them on an individual basis in order to help them feel empowered and energized.
  • Implement programs that assess and quantify areas where individual employees can make meaningful changes that bring them in line with the organization’s culture.

Defining strong workplace culture

A recent Korn Ferry survey reported that only 32% of executives said their culture aligned with their business strategy, which may account for a number of indicators of poor performance. But, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising. If you ask any C-suite executive to define customer attrition or sales forecasts they’ll have a quick and clear answer for you. But if you ask them to define company culture they may not be so quick with a response.

Put simply, a strong culture exists when what people believe, say, and do are all in line. It can be thought of as a game where people have a goal, rules and feedback, and are opting in. This latter portion is crucial, because in order to impact a culture, people need to bring themselves into it instead of taking from it. Think of it as a play on JFK’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you…” concept.

Aligning culture and the individual

Gallup also found that a mere 13% of employees reported being emotionally invested in their job — but there are plenty of examples of companies that have created a culture of engagement, and done it well. One of the first steps toward accomplishing this is to create an environment where employees view themselves as empowered and energized advocates of the company.

An example of a strong culture that often comes to mind is Southwest Airlines, whose approach bucks the status quo in a corporate world in which job satisfaction, security, and employment are seen to be at odds with profitability. Southwest accomplishes this by encouraging employees to be innovative, communicative, understanding, caring and individualistic by going to great strides to understand the personalities of their individual employees. By understanding how they prefer to think, act and communicate, they’re able to more effectively help them connect with the overall company culture and contribute their absolute best.

St. Luke’s program

Another company that has successfully aligned culture and individuals through a slightly different approach is St. Luke’s Hospital & Health Network. This Pennsylvania-based organization  emphasizes a culture of workforce vitality in which all leaders, staff, and volunteers feel valued and recognized from all levels of the network, viewing themselves as company advocates and the organization as an employer of choice.

In order to foster this kind of environment, they conducted a series of surveys to assess employee perceptions of managers’ performance. 25% of the managerial staff was identified as needing  improvement. They were placed in a program designed to bring their scores up to par with the highest performing managers by:

  • Signing a letter committing to improvement, which demonstrated that they understood that they were accountable for their own progress.
  • Taking a series of psychometric assessments, which provided insight into various strengths and weaknesses, and identified behaviors that could be modified to better connect with their teams.
  • Meeting, on an individual basis with the HR department heads to craft individual development plans, with input from their supervisors.
  • Participating in individual coaching sessions focusing on increasing their self-knowledge, which incorporated information gleaned from the assessments. For example, if an assessment indicated a high degree of dominance, the coaching might focus on how the manager could shape their behavior to more readily obtain open and honest feedback from their team.

At the six month mark, St. Luke’s reissued the employee survey, finding that 85% of the managers were making notable progress in areas like communication, stress management and visibility. This, according to St. Luke’s, boosted employee-satisfaction rates and engagement levels.

Change management and diversity

A survey conducted by my own firm found that change management is the hardest part to address in company culture, with 22% citing it as the most challenging issue. Trust and respect, accountability and diversity also ranked highly in people’s answers. The latter is important as tomorrow’s companies are likely to become more diverse.

How do you create a culture that unifies a group of people that may come from radically different walks of life? According to Dr. Pete Hammett, director of HR at Oklahoma Gas & Energy, you can start by offering a clear and unclouded mirror of the individual to help them to gain a realistic view of themselves and those around them. What are their true, “shoes-off” selves? Once people start to understand that, they start to see what they have in common with people of differing backgrounds, and start to form a basis for bridging all kinds of gaps.

The payoff is that more diverse organizations — when engaged by a strong workplace culture — can achieve higher productivity. This, in turn, strengthens the bottom line

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