Employee Engagement vs. Culture Surveys: What is Better?

Organizations that want to grow their business and optimize their results inevitably come to the realization that they need to be looking inward to understand what’s going on with their people. After all, business success starts and ends with people.

Surveys are a practical and measurable way to gather valuable information from a large number of people in a short period of time. Two of the most popular assessments are engagement and culture surveys, and some companies tend to use these two terms interchangeably.

While they are certainly related and intertwined with each other, they are in essence quite different.  This is critical to understand because the way engagement and culture are created and measured is distinct, and when organizations aren’t clear on the differences, they risk spending time, energy, and resources measuring the wrong thing.

The following points will help shed some light on what exactly engagement and culture surveys are, their purpose and what they measure, and why organizations may use one or the other (or both).

Engagement surveys: the “I” perspective

What it is

The purpose of an engagement survey is to measure an employee’s emotional and intellectual connection and commitment to the company. When employees are engaged, they see and feel a connection between their daily contributions to the organization and its overall success. Engaged employees use greater discretionary effort in all that they do. They are more productive, motivated, innovative, and creative, and take more ownership of results, thereby creating and sustaining a high performing organization.

Research consistently points out the correlation between the level of employee engagement and the company’s business performance. When employees’ heads, hearts and hands are all focused on helping the organization achieve its business objectives, everyone wins – employees are more satisfied with their working environment and relationships and provide better customer service; customers are more satisfied doing business with the company, and the financial performance of the business improves.

What it measures

Engagement surveys measure the factors that impact employee performance. They help an employer understand the employees’ personal experience of work: how they feel about their roles, responsibilities, workload, relationships with managers and colleagues, communication and cooperation, job stress and work-life balance, health and safety, among others. The collective data provides a picture of how well people feel supported, challenged, and managed in their roles.

Examples of questions you would often find in an engagement survey include:

  • “I recommend this organization as a great place to work.”
  • “It would take a lot to get me to leave this company.”
  • “My job makes full use of my skills and abilities.”

Why use it

Engagement surveys are helpful for an organization that wants to enhance the employee experience, promote an organizational change, or improve work performance. Analysis of the survey data provides indications of what factors impacting performance employers need to pay more attention to.

For example, in a engagement survey I recently conducted with a client, while overall people were satisfied with many organizational factors, there was a distinct gap in satisfaction around opportunities for development and growth. This had longer-term implications for how long people were willing to stay at the company – even though they were “engaged” by other metrics. Having this information allowed the company to start exploring with staff what kinds of development opportunities they were looking for and how those needs could be met in a way that benefited both the employee and the organization.

Company culture survey: the “we” perspective

What it is

Culture is the shared beliefs and values that guide thinking and behaviour, or as former CEO of Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher once said, “Culture is what people do when no one is looking.” A culture survey is often driven by the business need to change or align with a new vision and direction. It is an excellent way to determine how well employees know and are committed to the values of the company. Culture surveys are useful to measure employee perceptions after a merger or any substantive change in management, direction or structure.

What it measures

Culture surveys typically measure internal structures, systems, technologies, and skills/qualities that influence behaviours and expectations. Areas such as Vision/Mission, job design, performance management, teamwork, innovation, sources of power and influence, methods for conflict resolution, and supervisory and managerial styles are typically covered (among many others).

Responses tell you how the workforce perceives the current culture in terms of the behaviours and norms that people believe are required to “fit in.” These behavioural norms have a significant impact on the organization’s ability to solve problems, communicate, adapt to change, and perform effectively.

Specifically, a culture survey will enable organizations to understand their culture in terms of the behaviours that are currently expected of people, discern the impact of the culture on its members, and establish a direction for cultural change efforts to create a high performing culture. Examples of typical questions include:

  • “In our organization, we deal with each other in a friendly, pleasant way.”
  • “In our organization, we do things for the approval of others.”
  • “In our organization, we always follow policies and practices.”

Why use it: Organizations that are trying to drive particular behaviours and intentionally create culture are those that would benefit from surveying culture. Having this kind of data ensures that any initiatives are in alignment with the values and vision of the organization. It also offers a company greater awareness of the root causes and subtleties impacting employee engagement and customer satisfaction. In short, organizations that want to know for sure if the culture they’re creating is one that is proven to lead to high performance are best served with a culture survey.

The goal determines the method

While cultural improvements involve looking at the collective behaviours and expectations, employee engagement entails focusing on the factors that motivate employees to give their best. Engagement and culture are inextricably linked and affect each other. Both engagement surveys and culture surveys are valuable assessment tools, the key is for each organization to know exactly what their goal is in the first place and thus what they want to change and measure.

If you’re left wondering, can an organization do both kinds of surveys – the answer is yes. While some might worry that over-surveying could create inertia, companies who are highly strategic about developing their culture and employee engagement have found innovative ways to collect data on both. Whether it’s alternating the type of survey every 12-18 months or conducting extensive culture and engagement surveys initially and then only smaller targeted surveys on priority areas thereafter, when the desired outcomes are clear, the type of survey(s) and the process to use tends to fall into place rather quickly.

Contact us to learn more.

About the author

Sasja is a specialist in organizational culture, leadership coaching and development, and employee engagement. Driven by her core purpose to create conditions for individuals, teams, and organizations to excel, Sasja helps people develop the mindset and skills they need to achieve superior results.

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