Defining culture… it’s NOT engagement


Posted by Amanda Fajak - 08 April, 2015

Defining culture… it’s NOT engagement
In the first of an exclusive series of articles defining culture in organisations, Walking the Talk's Director Europe, Amanda Fajak, begins by walking us through how culture is distinct from engagement.

I was recently involved in a Ministerial Summit on Corporate Culture in London. Two things struck me at the event. Firstly, after spending the last 17 years highlighting the criticality of culture, it feels as though it has truly ‘arrived’. After achieving status as Merriam-Webster’s dictionary word of the year in December, culture is referenced in almost every newspaper and magazine. On or offline, it is omnipresent.

Secondly, despite the frequency with which culture is being mentioned, I can’t help having a sense of disquiet that, despite the fact we’re all using the same word, it has different meanings. I believe that the debate on culture will be significantly enhanced when we have a clear and consistent definition of what culture is, so I would like to start that discussion.

The main confusion I observe is that people perceive that culture = engagement. They are different things. One way I would describe the difference is this: Imagine you have two football teams. Both feel proud to be playing for their team and are happy and motivated as they run onto the field. Once on the field, one team plays an offensive game, the other a defensive game. The culture of the team will relate to the type of game they played, not how they felt running onto the field or how they feel about their team, this latter description is the equivalent of engagement.

So here is what I think is the best definition of culture. Let's dissect this definition together in order to see how it differs from engagement.


Culture is the patterns of behaviour that are encouraged, discouraged and tolerated by people and systems over time.


Patterns of behaviour.

The hallmark of culture, behaviour, or how we conduct ourselves with others, is observable. When we are talking about culture, we are interested in the behaviour that occurs in repeated patterns. These repeated patterns determine the outcomes that the organisation achieves. Culture is what people DO again and again. Engagement is about how employees think and feel about the organisation.


Encouraged, discouraged or tolerated.

In my experience, most organisations tolerate behaviour more than they actively encourage or discourage it. The patterns of behaviour that are present in an organisation have either been tacitly or overtly encouraged or discouraged over time – the tacit behaviours are what is tolerated in the day to day, sending a message that a behaviour is OK.

The News of the World offers an interesting insight into this: Getting stories was their key process, but how they got their stories was a key differentiator. Feedback in the Leveson Inquiry suggests that whilst no-one overtly encouraged phone tapping, leaders ‘turned a blind eye’ to the well-known practice. In this case, ‘tolerating’ created a perceived acceptable pattern of behaviours.

In my experience, companies that have ‘healthy’ cultures encourage and discourage more actively and tolerate less. They do this by having clear frameworks and asking questions to challenge complacency. As Carolyn Taylor, the CEO of Walking the Talk notes in her article on Google’s culture:

“What I admire about Google is that they have … conversations vigorously, because they feel passionate about what they stand for. They make their decisions within the context of the right conversation.”

When measuring engagement, the sort of constructs that would indicate evidence of ‘encourage’ and ‘discourage’ include: measures of the extent to which people give feedback on performance, level of communication in the organisation, and the relationship between leaders and employees.

By people and systems.

Culture is created as equally by systems such as the performance framework, structure of an organisation and its pay and reward structure, as it is created by its people. When I say ‘people’, my focus here is not on what people say, but what they do. One of my favourite quotes is “people follow what you do not what you say,” and for me this particularly emphasises that the ‘walk’ and the ‘talk’ play a key part in shaping behaviour. People, particularly leaders of organisations, actively reinforce patterns of behaviour by what they pay attention to and how they themselves operate.

The system influences patterns of behaviour by influencing how people spend their time, how finite resources are utilised as well as shaping the frameworks that people operate within. When people comply with these systems, they are generally rewarded (encouraged). When they don’t comply, they are either punished (discouraged), or the behaviour is tolerated. Either way, a message is being sent about what is really valued ‘around here.’

When measuring engagement, the sort of constructs that would indicate this include: measures of leadership effectiveness, satisfaction with pay and reward, and satisfaction with opportunities for promotion.

Over time.

Culture is created over time. It is like a well-worn path that is driven into the organisation. We refer to corporate blindness as a phenomenon that occurs when the patterns of behaviour become like a comfortable pair of shoes – you may not like them, but you almost don’t realise that you are wearing them. When someone joins an organisation, or observes from the outside, the patterns of behaviour can be more evident than from inside the business. The insidious nature of culture is that over time, it can be like a regular drumbeat that envelopes individuals into the fold.

In summary, culture is a complex structure that is wholly distinct from satisfaction and engagement. What we do know is that where organisations are clear on the culture they seek; where they are clear on the behavioural framework, and where leaders in those organisations actively encourage and discourage behaviour around that framework, people are clearer about what it takes to be a successful member of that organisation. Once that clarity exists, individuals can choose whether that organisation is a good fit for them.

From what I have seen over the years, where there is cultural clarity, where individuals feel that they have choice, and where individuals act on that choice, you’ll find healthier organisations with higher levels of engagement.


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Topics: Engagement, Behaviour, Corporate culture, Culture defined, Systems, Amanda Fajak

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