Employee engagement and culture

By Alicia Custis

Firstly, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Secondly, if you are aspiring to have a uniform culture across the entire workforce, then join a cult. And thirdly, employee engagement does not equal organisational culture. 

So, let’s cover employee engagement first and the golden key. Then look at how engagement fits in with culture. And finish with the tricky, but widespread challenge of sub-cultures.

You’ll learn:

• That culture creates behavioural norms that can take a long time to shift
• About countercultures versus subcultures
• Why line managers are critical to a strong culture and should be invested in

Culture Club – part of the family, not an annual visitor

Organisations that lack a strong, energised culture may still have employees who are engaged in their work (though they’re probably unlikely to remain engaged for long). 

On the other hand, organisations with dynamic, inspiring cultures almost can’t help but have engaged employees. 

“The way things work around here” should therefore mean a place where people can participate in the decision-making process and voice their opinions, ideas, concerns, or even criticisms. 

Somewhere where employees are valued, supported and appreciated, with opportunities to be innovative and grow professionally. And of course, an open culture that embraces individuals for their diverse backgrounds. 

The list goes on, but the point is that we can’t rely on things like the annual NHS staff survey to measure achievements or shortcomings. We need pulse surveys, employee sentiment and culture assessments and real-time monitoring to rapidly assess when we’re on a high and when problems are arising. 

And we need to know what we’re measuring. That means breaking the behaviours down into activity that can be measured, with dashboards that show how behaviour and engagement alignment is tracking over time. Then using these results to focus attention and culture change efforts on problem areas.

It should be part of business, with a leadership style and communication system that reflects the corporate culture. 

We discuss our values at every opportunity in our organisation, with our value-based behaviours woven into annual appraisals and rewards for those who remember, understand and practice the principles. 

We recruit against our values, looking for attitude and fit to our corporate culture as well as ability. And, we tell inspiring stories that illustrate the mission, culture and values of our organisations. 

Culture does not make people, people make culture. It’s the people, stupid. 

Culture Club? What about subcultures….

Who are Mr and Mrs Average in an NHS organisation? 

Yes, we’re all firmly committed to the values of compassion and care, with a safe, high-quality health service for patients and good patient experience. But the NHS contains many powerful professional groups with associated subcultures which are often in conflict. 

These groups come together in multi-disciplinary teams, with sometimes multi-directional goals, particular attitudes and practices. We can have also other subcultures, based on geographic locations or level.

Its countercultures that are bad, not subcultures. That’s why we need to focus on creating the right environment for professional activity to thrive, within agreed standards and guidelines. Not make them feel that their way of working is undervalued or misunderstood, which could tip into counterculture territory.

We need to recognise our subcultures, consider them when planning organisational-wide initiatives, watch for signals of subculture shifts and disrupt the cynicism spiral.

Yes, that takes time and effort. But that’s the way to achieve integrity of purpose across an organisation. 

Present and engaged – why the line manager is king

It’s a feeling. Yep, employee engagement is the feelings that individuals have towards their work. It reflects how motivated and bought-in they are to the organisation and their role.

Culture manifests in deeply engrained behavioural norms that take a long time to shift, but engagement can be easily affected by temporary ‘climate’ factors, such as a bad manager, challenging project or organisational change. These factors can change from week to week, day to day and even hour to hour!

So, basically our work is never done and never ends when it comes to engagement. Plus it’s too important. 

It’s linked to staff health and well-being, patient satisfaction, effective decision making, innovation and clinical outcomes. Pretty big stuff and that’s without an era of heightened transparency, greater workforce mobility and severe skills shortages thrown in.

We recognise that effective communication from senior leaders is absolutely vital for employee engagement. But the golden key is line managers. Senior leaders need to set the tone at the top by being visible, approachable and accountable. They need to ensure there is regular and effective two-way communication with frontline staff. 

But line managers must be empowered, supported and trained to better engage their teams. They have a much more direct relationship and the evidence shows that their teams want to hear from them.

Our six-monthly communications survey with our 5000 staff consistently show that they would rather be kept informed, updated and engaged by their line manager. Those at the ‘coalface’ might not even come into contact with the intranet, newsletters and other corporate communications channels. Their manager is therefore pivotal in ensuring that information flows effectively both up and down the organisation. 

One of the peculiarities of the NHS is the fact that although only three percent of employees are officially classed as managers or senior managers, more than 30 percent of staff have responsibility for managing people. Most combine this role with clinical or other responsibilities, but wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as managers. But they have a critical role to play in engaging employees.

So, we’re putting our efforts – through management training programmes, coaching, quality materials and content and cascade and feedback systems – into them. Moving from ‘command and control’ to ‘coach and enabler.’

The line managers are encouraged to hold regular, face-to-face team briefings to feed key messages down to their staff and involve them in discussions about the priorities, challenges and potential improvement both for the team and for our organisation as a whole. 

We’re giving both support and the autonomy to deliver their messages in their way. 

Trying to ‘control’ messages means that levels of engagement get weaker and weaker the further down information is filtered. Not only do managers need to be given the trust and autonomy to shape and communicate messages in the way that they know is right for their teams, they also need input into what the messages should be. 

They will know if something is going to provoke a negative reaction and what needs to be done to reassure people. We need to empower middle managers to be able to say what, where, when and how things need to be said.

Trust is transitive. If our managers believe a message then the people who work for them are going to be more inclined to believe it.


Alicia Custis is a multi-award winning communications specialist, with over 20 years’ experience working in PR agencies and the NHS. Alicia was asked to work at Stockport NHS Foundation Trust immediately after the saline poisoning murders at Stepping Hill Hospital in 2011, to lead on communications around the incident and develop and implement an overall communications strategy for the organisation. She was previously head of communications at The Christie Cancer Centre for 10 years.

Twitter: @AliciaCustis
Online: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alicia-custis-b162a711/