roviding Free Snacks

What’s the difference between culture and employee engagement? It’s a good question. Many people use the two terms interchangeably. In their minds, the term company culture is synonymous with free food, foosball tables, and other workplace perks deemed to improve the employee experience, increase satisfaction, and drive greater commitment to the company. There is, of course, a lot more to employee engagement than workplace goodies. Employee engagement surveys typically ask about factors such as empowerment to make decisions, freedom to innovate, and work–life balance. There is some evidence to suggest that high scores on these issues make a difference to a company’s bottom line. According to Gallup’s 2016 Q12 Meta-Analysis report, business units in the top quartile in terms of employee engagement outperformed business units in the bottom quartile by 21 percent in profitability.

However, simply changing a culture in an effort to improve employee engagement won’t necessarily lead to improved business performance. In fact, treating engagement as the goal of culture evolution can have a negative impact. That’s because although there are widely recognized drivers of engagement that are independent of strategy or industry, the cultural drivers of success differ widely from company to company. The same behavior can drive success at one company while hampering success at another (see exhibit).

We’ve learned through our work at the Katzenbach Center that the key to unlocking performance via organizational culture is to align company culture to business priorities. This requires the selection of a “critical few” behaviors that enable the desired business outcomes. When these behaviors are coupled with structural and process changes that support them, the entirety of these changes have an impact on the employee experience. Using culture to drive performance thus requires emphasizing elements of the employee experience compatible with desired business outcomes, and downplaying non-compatible elements. Whether the elements of the employee experience that drive performance also drive increased engagement is of secondary importance. Employee engagement should be regarded as a byproduct of culture evolution efforts rather than a tangible goal of them.