Corporate Chronicles – Behind Employee Engagement, Look to Organizational Culture

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To leverage confident vulnerability, both coach and coachee, or leader and team must find the Whenever the topic of employee engagement comes up, I usually tense up.  I tense up so badly in fact its like hearing nails scratching a chalkboard.

And I know I probably just showed my age with the chalkboard reference, but employee engagement does not operate in isolation. That said, the data  Gallup recently shared is scary. 

Only 30% of U.S. employees, and 13% worldwide, are engaged

35% of U.S. managers are engaged in their jobs, 51 % are not engaged, and 14% are actively disengaged

Managers account for at least 70% of employee engagement related issues

In reading past posts of mine, it’s no secret that unlocking the potential power of people development sits in leaders ability to move away from accidental (Diminishers) to intentional (Multipliers).

With that said, let’s move away from accidental and intentional for a minute, and move toward an even simpler concept; saying yes and saying no.

Saying “Yes” & Saying “No”

The concept of saying “yes” and saying “no” comes from my training as a coach and is designed to shed light on what happens when we make decisions.

To illustrate, let’s take an experience from my memory bank – the typical meeting cancellation…and in this case, a performance review meeting.

Once, a long time ago, a line manager of mine cancelled because a workplace emergency came up. That’s fine. I was ok with it, as things happen in a busy work environment, and we remained in communication and tried to stay fluid.

However, when it was cancelled a third and fourth time, an indirect message was sent, “NO, this performance review meeting is not as important as everything else on my plate.”

Now, to be fair, I knew my line manager quite well and understood this was uncharacteristic of him – that it was part of something systemic in the way things were done at the organization. 

The short answer was the cancellations were the result of shifting priorities from his own line manager, which had a trickle down affect onto me, but while there was surely a connection, there was something else going on.  
Correlation does not equal Causation

The researcher in me finds the Gallup data telling, but I prefer to reserve judgment of managers and focus on the organizational culture attached to employee engagement as a strategy.

And while the data is pretty damming of managers’ impact on employee engagement, correlation does not equal causation, which means one may be related to the other, but might not be the underlying root cause to the phenomenon.

Unwrapping the nuances of employee engagement becomes much more complex when we look at what contributes to it. And the question that immediately comes up to mind – what would a culture survey show if it were placed side-by-side to the Gallup data?

Organizational Culture impacts Organizational Design which impacts Organizational Performance 

It’s a curious thing trying to deduce the culture of an organization – just look at how they categorize strategic initiatives.

For example, what do you notice when you see talent development vs. talent management? Or when I say cultivate an employee experience much like a customer experience vs. improve employee engagement?

For starters, development has a positive connotation. When you develop something it has the meaning of progress and moving forward and becoming better…of growing.

Whereas management can be interpreted two different ways: it may mean I manage or handle something well or it can have the negative connotation of controlling something or someone.

Connotations have subjective meaning. Each word can have a different meaning depending on what we associate with it……more to the point, how we interpret it.

Interpretation is subjective, and reasonably speaking, clarity around what organizations intentionally want to say “yes” and “no” to is a strategic imperative. 

Simply put – if not managed carefully, connotations of commitment vs. compliance becomes a trend and breeds a systemic culture that shapes the design of an organization.  

And yes, an organization’s design does indeed impact the way it performs e.g. employment engagement. Hence, Gallup’s data findings. 
Adopting a Systems Approach
When I think of Systems Awareness, I think of Peter Senge of MIT’s School of Business who describes it in the following way:


Are you a part of a family? Everybody is a part of a family. Have you ever seen in a family, people producing consequences in the family, how people act, how people feel, that aren’t what anybody intends? Yes. How does that happen?

The fundamental rationale of systems thinking is to understand how it is that the problems that we all deal with, which are the most vexing, difficult and intransigent, come about, and to give us some perspective on those problems [in order to] give us some leverage and insight as to what we might do differently.


It would be easy to solely lay blame on managers for the plight of employee engagement, AND unfair to absolve an organization’s culture as a systematic influence on the resulting undesired human behavior.  

My question to you – how much attention has your organization placed on the value of Systems Awareness and Systems Thinking in the context of employee engagement? 

About David

David is a leadership practitioner, who is passionate about creating the conditions for sustainable people development and organizational development success.  His passion for sustainable success is grounded in the belief that all people and organizations can enhance their performance when the right conditions for success are intentionally cultivated at the workplace.


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David Ribott International is a socially conscious coaching and consulting company empowering clients who are committed to a triple-bottom-line approach focused on people, performance, and profit by cultivating leadership effectiveness.

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