“Culture” and “engagement” are both buzzwords in the L&D and HR fields. In fact, CultureIQ, a culture management software and strategy platform, has raised $7.5 million in venture capital because they are so buzzworthy. But what do culture and engagement mean, how do they relate to each other, and why should L&D care?

“The simplest definition” of culture, according to Greg Besner, co-founder and CEO of CultureIQ, “is simply how things get done in an organization.” Ed O’Boyle, global practice leader at Gallup, adds that culture is the unique way things get done in an organization. “It encompasses everything from incentives to organizational structure to executive decision-making. It is, in effect, the sum total of messages an employee receives about what really matters – not just what your stated ‘values’ are.”

CultureIQ identifies 10 components of a high-performing culture: innovation, mission and value alignment, agility, collaboration, communication, support, responsibility, wellness, performance focus, and work environment. Besner says that based on CultureIQ research, several of these components are highly correlated with business results.

Scott and Ken Blanchard wrote in the fall 2016 issue of Training Industry Magazine that engaged employees are high performers, “put in extra effort,” are good corporate citizens, stay with their employers longer and recommend their employers to others. “There’s a big misconception,” says O’Boyle, “that employee engagement means job satisfaction.” But Gallup’s research has found “a relatively weak relationship” between both job satisfaction and performance and job satisfaction and employee retention. “For us,” he says, “a highly engaged employee isn’t someone who just shows up and fills a seat; they are enthusiastic about coming to work, they go above and beyond expectations, and they find meaning in what they do.”

“People often fold together culture and engagement,” Besner says. “Engagement is actually an outcome of a strong and positive culture.” O’Boyle says that high engagement supports high performance, while culture impacts how people work together, how they make decisions, and how (and why) they are rewarded. “If you want a high-performing culture,” he says, “you need both engagement and culture alignment.”

Gallup research has found that employees and teams that align with their organization’s culture perform higher on key performance metrics than employees and teams that don’t. “A unified culture creates alignment that delivers an authentic employee experience and a consistent consumer experience.”

The Role of Learning and Development

Besner says there are three trends increasing the importance of culture at every organization. First, employees are expecting to give and receive more frequent feedback; social media platforms provide “continuous listening” – giving and receiving feedback all the time – opportunities, so employees expect their organizations to provide a similar continuous listening experience.

Second, executives and board members are increasingly showing an interest in culture and engagement. More than half of the people who contacted CultureIQ about its services last year were business leaders outside of talent functions. “This is a leadership topic, not just a human resources topic,” he says. “Companies are realizing that … beyond the management team of an organization but actually the board of directors has a shared fiduciary responsibility for all shareholders and all stakeholders; we’re having boards now that are engaging CultureIQ.”

Finally, Besner says, L&D and HR leaders are “truly at the table more so than ever before.” In Training Industry Magazine, for instance, the Blanchards wrote that L&D plays an important role in improving employee engagement by training managers to better engage their employees. Likewise, Larry Emond, a managing partner at Gallup, writes, “An employee engagement program needs to be a manager education and development initiative, not a measurement initiative.” Such programs should give managers “learning and tools to increase engagement within their teams, week in and week out – through ongoing conversations between managers and their employees.”

“From very practical training, like ethics and safety, to promoting innovation and creativity,” O’Boyle says, “L&D leaders tell the stories about their organization that set the tone for everybody else,” thereby helping to define and shape the organization’s culture. L&D also helps the organization determine how and where to direct employee engagement efforts, since “a highly engaged team with no direction is a waste of resources.”

Measuring Culture and Engagement

“The vast majority of culture surveys do not work,” O’Boyle says, “because they attempt to place your organization’s culture into pre-defined categories,” which “[remove] your company’s differentiator rather than revealing it.” Perhaps in response to this problem, CultureIQ’s platform offers both a bank of employee survey questions as well as the option for clients to provide organization-specific questions and data to include in CultureIQ’s culture strategy consulting.

Besner says that while some companies see a high correlation between employee engagement and business results, others don’t. But “that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t focus on having engaged employees,” he says. It just means there are other, still important, metrics to use to determine the impact of employee engagement efforts, like turnover or employee recommendations. It’s important to be continually seeking feedback, or performing “continuous listening,” whether that’s defined as once or twice per year, once per quarter, or multiple times per month, Besner says.

To measure engagement, O’Boyle says, “you have to have a scientifically rigorous approach to understand your teams.” Identify the employees who are highly engaged, performing at a high level and aligned with the culture your organization wants to have. Determine what makes them so engaged, and then use that knowledge to train the rest of the organization. In other words, “instead of trying to be Google, figure out what’s working in your own organization, understand it deeply and teach everyone else.”

Improving Culture and Engagement

To support employee engagement, O’Boyle recommends training managers to provide ongoing coaching conversations with their employees, saying that when managers have those conversations, they double employee engagement.

Besner also stresses the importance of communication, saying it’s “often very challenging and also very hard to scale.” He recommends using a company newsletter or blog “to articulate explicitly” what’s happening in the organization and what the organization cares about. “People, in my experience, really love to consume” that type of content. He also recommends having “an idea repository … so you always have a pipeline of [culture] programs that you can implement.” Management lunches, peer recognition programs and team building retreats are some popular activities.

“The common culture problems we see,” says O’Boyle, “center around four challenges: clarity, consistency, alignment and commitment.” By clarifying culture, ensuring consistent training and messaging, aligning teams and employees with the culture, and ensuring commitment across the organization, L&D organizations can contribute to a high-performing culture.