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Employee engagement starts at the top

To some people, “culture,” in the corporate sense, is a bit of a fuzzy concept. Still, even if they can’t exactly define it, anyone who has worked for a company with an unhealthy culture knows it. And anyone who has pushed for culture change in a workplace understands just how difficult that exercise can be.

“It’s not necessarily about what feels good and what feels right, but what makes a difference in terms of business performance,” says Eric D’Amours, Canadian M&A business leader at human resources consultancy Towers Watson. “It’s more like having a common view about where we are and where we want to go, because from that point on it becomes clear to everybody.”

A good culture supports a highly engaged work force, says Neil Crawford, leader of the Best Employers in Canada study at Hewitt Associates. Employees feel motivated and inspired by the leadership, who feel good about their customers, their colleagues and their workplace.

“We measure engagement, what’s driving engagement, and measure people’s perception of value - what are my values? What are the company’s values? We look at alignment,” explains Mr. Crawford. “Do we have 50 per cent engaged? 100 per cent?” In Hewitt's research to determine best people practices, the companies at the top of the list tend to have between 70 and 90 per cent engagement. High engagement, he adds, is equated with better business results and lower absenteeism.

The initial assessment of a workplace’s culture can be performed through surveys, focus groups and/or interviews. Nailing down a consensus, especially at the top, can be a challenge. “The job of leaders is usually to envision and look ahead, and when you ask them about their culture, they answer what they’d like it to be,” adds Mr. D’Amours.

But the culture in any workplace is most influenced and driven by the leadership, so clarity is the foundational step.

“Are we an organization with a safety focus or are we trying to promote diversity of thought?” says Mr. D’Amours. “Are we a culture around efficiency where we have a process around everything? Or rather are we innovative - we don’t care about the process, we just care about the results. There’s no right or wrong answer, but it has to be clear to everybody.”

Once a company’s leaders have defined their starting point and have a vision of the future, then they must determine whether the way the employees are trained, managed, assessed and paid is aligned with getting where the top level wants to go.

“If you have a value around operational efficiency, what does that look like?” says Mr. Crawford. “What are examples of employees demonstrating that value? Is their manager clear about what they need to do to be successful? Are they coaching them well or not?”

To that end, he adds, many organizations will set out a road map. “In the first six months, assess where you are, understand what the most important things are to attack, create a plan, and start executing,” he says.

During the first year, it might involve helping managers build their skills. The second year would be more focused on recognition; the third may be about making sure employees have tools and resources for development.

“If you don’t pay attention to getting your leaders and managers clear on what’s expected of them, and then give them the time and skill to be good people managers, you’re going to have problems,” says Mr. Crawford. “They’re the ones who carry the message every day.”

But no matter how valuable the process of change or how much impact an aligned culture may have on the bottom line, the exercise is still a difficult one. For one thing, any change of process involves a change in behaviour - often at the leadership level. With a few exceptions, most people, as Mr. D’Amours notes, don’t readily embrace change.

In addition, the process may open a Pandora’s box of issues, among them the discovery that leadership itself is not aligned.

“You’re going to see organizations that don’t want to have this conversation,” adds Mr. D’Amours. “Saying you want to realign your culture sounds great, but you’ve got to have the guts to live with the consequences.”