There’s a lot of talk in the business world about employee engagement, much of which centers around Gallup survey data. They’ve been measuring employee engagement, both in the U.S. and abroad, for about 10 years.

The definition can get a bit squishy, but it’s ultimately about giving discretionary effort. An “engaged” employee is one who will choose to put in extra work because they want to, not because they’re told to or will get a bonus check for it. They like their jobs. They’re into it. They’re engaged. Now here’s the bad news: According to Gallup, that only describes about 30% of the workforce. So what are the other 70% like?

Think about your career for a minute. I’m sure you’ve had jobs you just weren’t that into. You did the work because you needed the paycheck. You didn’t slack off, but you didn’t go the extra mile either. That counts as disengaged. Still productive, but disengaged because we’re not getting that extra effort. This represents about half the workforce.

And then there’s that bottom 20%. They are so disengaged with work, they are actively sabotaging their own organization. Gallup calls them “actively disengaged.” Consider for a moment what we could collectively achieve in our economy if one-fifth of our employees were not rowing in the wrong direction.

Yeah. Employee engagement is important. But here’s the problem: We’re so focused on employee engagement — specifically increasing our employee engagement scores— that we’re missing the most important issue: culture.

The employee engagement surveys will give you very rich data: Does your manager care about you, do you have the equipment you need to get the job done, do you have a best friend at work? And the survey people will tell you, companies with higher scores on these questions performed measurably better than their peers. They’ve got statistics to prove it, and it makes intuitive sense: Higher engagement means higher performance.

So here’s where we get messed up. What do you do if the data says your managers don’t care, or people don’t have friends at work? Train your managers in empathy? Force people to go to happy hour together? If you buy new Macs for everyone, are you really certain true engagement is going to increase? Our approach to employee engagement has been to force improvements in the engagement metrics without understanding what drives engagement in the first place.

If you found people with clinical depression laughed a lot less than people without depression, would you force depressed people to laugh more? No, you’d treat their depression, and if your treatment was successful, you’d probably find them laughing more.

Engagement is fundamentally driven by a culture that truly works. A strong culture is one where what is valued internally is sharply aligned with what drives the success of the enterprise, and the people there see it, understand it and live it. When it’s happening, you’ll see your engagement scores go up.

Jamie is an author and culture consultant at Human Workplaces who uses culture analytics and customized consulting to drive growth, innovation, and engagement for organizations around the world. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences and culture change to his work with leaders leveraging the power of culture. The author of two books — "When Millennials Take Over" and "Humanize" — Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

Jamie is an author and culture consultant at Human Workplaces who uses culture analytics and customized consulting to drive growth, innovation, and engagement for organizations around the world. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences and culture change to his work with leaders leveraging the power of culture. The author of two books — "When Millennials Take Over" and "Humanize" — Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

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