I spoke last week at the Executive Leaders’ Network conference, on the topics of culture, engagement, and how they can help to drive business objectives. I thought I would share across a series of blog posts some of the topics I explored, and how they translate back from theory into practise.

Culture and engagement are two of the HR industry’s most loved buzzwords. Pick up pretty much any HR publication, article or whitepaper and it is likely they will get a mention. We have had it ingrained upon us that focusing on culture and engagement is Good, failure to do so is inherently Bad. But why? What is it about culture and engagement that make them such critical strategic drivers. And, in fact… what even are culture and engagement at all?

Dictionary definitions

It was with this in mind that I started my presentation looking at the definition of the two words. Culture is the collection of behaviours and beliefs which characterise a particular group of people. When we talk about culture in the workplace, we’re talking about the behaviours and beliefs which are prevalent within our employee body. Those behaviours and beliefs are inherent within individuals. This is the reason why, when we talk about culture, it is important to acknowledge that it cannot be forced. We can encourage culture. We can nurture culture. We cannot force culture.

When we use the word ‘engagement’ in the context of our employees at work, we are talking about the level of focus and attention individuals are paying to our target. In this instance, that target is our business objectives. Engaged employees are those employees who are working and driving towards our overall goals. There have been a number of debates as to how you can measure employee engagement. Personally, I don’t believe it is possible to measure engagement in isolation. If you look at most surveys claiming to do so, they are based on very subjective measures. It is, however, very much possible to measure the outcome of that engagement, which is the delivery against objectives.

Rock up a hill

To understand the reasons why engagement is vital to all organisations, there is a simple analogy. Let’s imagine that you have 20 employees, a steep hill, and a heavy rock. The rock is at the bottom of the hill. Your organisational objective is to move that rock to the top of the hill. The 20 employees all understand that they need to get the rock to the top of the hill. By all of them focusing their efforts in the same direction, the odds of them achieving that objective are extremely high.

Let’s take a different scenario though. In this scenario you have the same 20 employees, the same steep hill, and the same heavy rock. This time, only 5 of the employees are focused on pushing the rock up the hill. 5 others are stood to one side, confused, not entirely sure what’s going on. Another 5 employees are also focused on pushing a rock up a hill… but they’ve found a different rock, and are trying to push it up a different hill. And the final 5 employees are actually actively trying to push the rock we want to get up the hill, back down the hill again.

It’s a simplistic analogy, but hopefully it illustrates my point. We need our employees to be engaged in order to deliver our business objectives. They can only be engaged if they understand what those business objectives are. Think about your own organisation for a moment. Do you – honestly – know what all of your business objectives are?

Even if you do, what about your teams? What about the teams across the wider business? What about your very newest employee? Do they all truly know what it is that you need them to do?

Communicate, communicate, and communicate again

When it comes to our organisational objectives it is very simple. We cannot communicate them enough. We must communicate, communicate some more, and then, when we think we’ve communicated enough, we must communicate again. If our objectives aren’t clear, we can’t expect our employees to engage with them. If our employees aren’t engaged with them, then we don’t have a hope in hell of achieving them. It really is as simple as that.

In the next blog post in this series, I will be exploring the relationship between culture and engagement. I will also be looking at what we as HR practitioners and senior leaders can do to foster that relationship and thereby drive delivery within our business.