At a time of ever greater competition, companies are increasingly looking at how factors such as culture and engagement can help them thrive and grow.

Engaged employees are more productive and are less likely to leave, while a high performing culture ensures organisations are agile, customer-focused and achieving their strategic objectives in a way that reflects their espoused values. While related, engagement and culture are very different in nature, and therefore need to be measured using specific methodologies.

Despite this the same tools are often applied to monitoring both. In many cases, surveys purportedly measuring culture are actually engagement surveys in disguise. This lack of specificity limits the effectiveness of both cultural change and employee engagement programmes and can mean that neither delivers the maximum benefit.

The difference between culture and engagement

To start with, how do you tell them apart? The best way to understand the differences is that employee engagement is focused on the ‘I’ – the personal thoughts and views of the staff member giving their feedback on their work and company they work for. This personalised response shows how likely someone is to remain at a company for the long-term, and can be linked to factors such as advocacy and productivity. Engagement can be damaged or even destroyed quickly, such as by the actions of a manager or other factors.

In contrast, culture is about the ‘we’ – at a basic level “the way we do things around here.” It rests on core values that can be buried deep within an organisation, and is consequently difficult to quantify or assess objectively. It is therefore much more difficult and time-consuming to change as it is often self-reinforcing and enduring. It takes a major external factor, such as a merger or acquisition or a sustained culture change programme to have an impact.

Why measure culture and engagement?

I’ve already alluded to the reasons for measuring engagement – namely that there is a direct link between engaged employees and retention, productivity and the bottom line. While individual circumstances might vary from company to company, when it comes to engagement, the basic premise is the same.

You need to start by understanding where you are now, so that you can plan how you need to change

By contrast, you measure culture because you want to ensure you have a culture that supports your strategic objectives in a manner that does not conflict with your values. This means you need to start by understanding where you are now, so that you can plan how you need to change in order to achieve a high performing culture. This is much more focused on the specific priorities for your organisation, so off the shelf surveys simply don’t work.

Highlighting the differences

Not only are culture and engagement measured for different reasons, but they also need to be assessed differently. Essentially, you can look at the results of your engagement survey and clearly see the extent to which your staff are engaged or not based on the scores you receive. Obviously you then need to look at how to make improvements, but it is simple to see where you are, and how you compare to previous years or similar organisations.

By contrast, there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to culture. You have to define what you see as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for your organisation, based on your business strategy and values. This will of course vary between organisations. For example, the culture that a bank is looking for is going to be very different to that of a startup.

Achieving a high performing culture

So how can you measure (and change) culture? The first step is to develop a self-awareness of what your prevailing culture actually is and the gap between this and the ideal future state. Start with leadership and management behaviours, as these are key to determining and reinforcing culture.

Then measure what staff experience now. This should ideally build on existing employee engagement measures, but be treated as a separate exercise to traditional engagement surveys. Staff need to be given the freedom and means to clearly describe how their current experience matches that which they perceive to be the future ideal.

Focus on the management actions that encourage the behaviours that support the culture you want

In particular, you need to understand how aligned this perceived future ideal is to that actually defined by your corporate strategy and values. This will help identify what the prevailing cultural type is within your organisation and how aligned your people are to your future vision. Is it a controlling, creative, competitive or co-operative environment and how does this vary between subsidiaries or departments? Categorising your culture in this way is vital as it provides a common vocabulary for how you discuss current and target culture and the changes you need to make.

In driving change focus on the management actions that encourage the behaviours that support the culture you want. Key to developing a high performance culture is the consistent reinforcement of these behaviours rather than those that serve to maintain the status quo. Ensure you continue to measure these behaviours alongside traditional engagement metrics such as attitudes, beliefs and perceptions, but using separate tools that recognise the difference between the two areas.

According to research from Deloitte, 87 percent of organizations cite culture and engagement as one of their top challenges. Central to addressing these challenges, and creating a high performance culture driven by engaged employees is to disentangle the two, and to understand where your culture currently sits. Make sure you are using the right ways of measuring each – there is no one size fits all process that covers both using the same tool.