view from above: a triangular intersection with pedestrians
PHOTO: Ryoji Iwata

Talking about employee engagement as it relates to customer engagement is all the rage these days. The idea being that happy employees equal happy customers. And along the way, some hijacked the “Customer Journey” terminology to speak of “Employee Journeys,” with the inference that a happy employee journey — typically defined by the HR touchpoints of recruitment, on-boarding, learning and development, performance assessment and exit — leads to happy customers. 

This analogy falls apart at journey’s end: The customer journey ends with a sale. The employee journey ends with the person leaving.

Those who study organizational culture are quick to point out that employee engagement is a direct outcome of organizational culture. Deloitte identifies the relationship in its 2016 human capital report as: “Culture describes ‘the way things work around here,’ while engagement describes ‘how people feel about the way things work around here.'” Therefore, if we are looking to map a journey to excellent employee experiences, the journey needs to start with culture. Mapping from culture to employee engagement is the natural next step.

Connecting Culture to Employee Engagement and Experience

In a recent article I wrote about online culture mapping, I relayed how we successfully characterized the subcultures of different business units. According to organizational culture guru, former MIT professor Ed Schein, subcultures typically form along occupational / discipline lines. In other words, our professional development history (e.g. HR, IT, Legal, Engineering, finance) shapes the subcultures we are most comfortable in. The other common subculture Schein identifies is within the ranks of senior management.

CultureIQ identifies an “engaged” employee as being:

  • Connected to your company’s mission.
  • Motivated to exceed their goals.
  • Proactive about learning new skills and starting new projects.
  • Positive in their approach to work.
  • Creative in solving problems.
  • Committed to developing their careers in your organization.

The Fortune organization that runs the global “Greatest Place to Work” assessments recently changed its criteria to better reflect the changing workplace. A key factor in its new assessment methodology is “Maximizing Human Potential.”

Considering the above, one could picture the possibility of an early stage employee achieving a desired level of engagement while existing totally within their discipline-aligned subculture. Senior members in the discipline could provide younger staff the employee experience they may be seeking, without the need to transcend a broader subculture to subculture boundary. However, over time, that same employee is likely to outgrow their occupational subculture. At that point, they will only be able to achieve their desired level of engagement by successfully transcending subculture boundaries.

Peg Neuhauser, an acknowledged public speaker and author of "Tribal Warfare in Organizations,” identifies these subcultures as "tribes" that exist in all organizations. Tribes are also central to how organizations successfully operate. In my own work in undertaking over 100 organizational network analyses for organizations globally, the most persistent characteristic is the existence of these organizational tribes.

By successfully negotiating and engaging with other subcultures, employees can achieve higher level goals, develop newer skills on large-scale projects and become more organizationally engaged by progressing to higher levels of work in the organization.

Related Article: Are People Analytics the Answer to Your Employee Engagement Woes?

Facilitating the Navigation of Cross-Cultural Boundaries

This may seem a little odd: enhancing employee experiences by helping them learn how to bridge cross-cultural boundaries within the organization. But think about your own best employee experiences. What achievements made you the most proud? Where did you learn the most? What challenges have you successfully overcome? Which moments of work did you most enjoy?

I would suggest that on reflection, that satisfaction wouldn’t come from completing the most L&D-sponsored online courses, or from getting a bigger pay raise than your colleagues, or even from solving a difficult work problem without any help. I would predict that your most fulfilling experiences would be when you have successfully bridged a subculture gap, either horizontally to other work units, or with senior management, to achieve something significant for your organization. And guess what? Once you have invested the time and energy in successfully navigating a cultural divide, why would you ever want to leave?

Leadership is responsible for facilitating these paths for cross-cultural bridging. I have heard many senior managers complain about having to "referee" disputes among their direct reports. It’s not good enough to sit back and suggest people work it out for themselves. As Neuhauser says, each tribe has their organizational mission that they are committed to. And from their separate perspectives, there is indeed conflict between the respective missions — but none are wrong. For anyone facing a cultural divide interaction, she suggests the following actions:

  1. Respect the other group by learning and understanding their mission to the extent that you can quote it as well as they can themselves.
  2. Let them know that you have done the above.
  3. Work on how you can honor both your respective missions i.e. the win-win.

Related Article: Successful Digital Experience Strategy Takes Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

What Can Leaders Do to Prepare the Way?

To help staff achieve their higher order goals, in a way that leads them to become more engaged with the organization, I would suggest:

  1. Providing base education on negotiation skills. Acknowledge there will be departmental missions that may appear to be in conflict, but the organization is prepared to help individuals learn to negotiate to become pragmatically collaborative and co-operative toward the overall organizational mission.
  2. Provide the opportunity for cross-fertilization between departments. Make use of cross-enterprise task teams. Make formal learning opportunities cross-cultural. One of our clients is using Working Out Loud (WOL) learning circles to help individual employees meet their personal goals, in a support group environment. The organization purposefully created the circles with a cross section of staff. And the collaboration still continues today, well after the formal learning exercises ended.
  3. Support the development of online cross-sectional communities. Enterprise Social Networking tools like Microsoft’s Yammer and Workplace by Facebook are becoming more common in organizations. Communities will form naturally around the different subcultures. Encourage these communities to open themselves up and engage with peripheral members. And as an individual: look to explore the other subcultures in your organization, in preparation for a time you may need to negotiate with them.

It is the higher order goals, learning and achievements that constitute the sort of employee experiences that lead people to stay loyal to an organization. Even if they choose to leave at some time, you will have provided them with experiences that will stand them in good stead wherever they go, and they will remember you for it.

Related Article: Why Collaboration Fails