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The Four Aspects of Culture That Drive Engagement

July 10, 2020
True leaders unite their people, rather than label them by age, gender or other differences.

We spend too much time in the workplace categorizing people. We point out differences, then we label. We have unfair expectations of how others will supposedly act or react in the professional world.

In reality, we all have more in common about what engages us than we might think. We just need to make sure, as leaders, we are providing a great culture to facilitate it.  That increases the likelihood of our company becoming an attractive place to have a career.

To find the commonalities of company culture that resonate with a cross-section of people, you look to the data.  

We recently pulled culture data from 182 manufacturing facilities where over 10,000 employees had taken both the Denison Organizational Culture Survey and an employee engagement survey. We divided the data by generation and then gender, creating six separate groups:  Boomer Female, Boomer Male, Gen X Female, Gen X Male, Millennial Female, and Millennial Male. We then ran a correlation analysis on the culture to engagement to locate the key drivers of engagement within the culture of each facility. 

When you look at the aspects of culture that drive engagement, they can be summarized into four key areas. One, each group wants to be a part of something meaningful. Two, they want to work for people they respect. Three, they want to know what they do within the company matters. Four, they like a company that is proactive and not reactive.  Let’s look at each of these areas, with more explanation:

1. There is a clear mission that gives meaning and direction to our work. 

People don’t want to wake up and just go to work. They want purpose and direction along with it.  They want meaning to their work and this is up to the leaders to provide it. A great example of providing purpose was a plant manager in Battle Creek, Michigan, we worked with years ago. He was working to implement lean practices. Other plants around the company struggled to get lean to take hold. His approach was different. He turned the process into a mission. He told employees the reason they needed to become lean was to increase the efficiency of the plant. By increasing the efficiency of the plant, the parent company would send them more work.  If the parent company sent more work, they would grow. If they grew, they would hire more people, and those people would be friends, family and neighbors. He then painted a picture of how their plant provided jobs for the city of Battle Creek. This was a powerful motivator and gave people the sense of purpose they needed. Your company doesn’t need to be a Google or Apple to have a dynamic mission. All you have to do is find what motivates people and then communicate your purpose. In this case, the hourly and salary workers and the union rallied around the PM’s purpose, and the result was a plant that became one of the most successful in the company.

2. The leaders and managers "practice what they preach." 

This is simple, but not always practiced in manufacturing. You want a boss who is fair, approachable and treats you with respect. You don’t want someone who will say one thing and do another. The days of managers and supervisors managing through fear are long gone. The high-performing cultures build leadership and they do it through respect: Treat people how you would like to be treated. Therefore, as you promote people into leadership positions, take care to lay out your expectations of leadership style. Do not just let your supervisors develop their own style. Teach and coach the style that is the most effective. If you do not have a leadership program, consider building one.   

3. Everyone believes that he or she can have a positive impact. 

Get people involved! If you have a compelling purpose and direction, then let your people be a part of the direction. Make sure you create and regularly talk about the metrics that are important to you. Engage people in quality, productivity and safety teams, and make sure those teams are truly employee-led. If you are winning, let people know. Connect people to the success of the organization. Celebrate your wins; learn through your losses. Allow your employees to talk honestly about your culture and ways they believe that your organization can be improved and be open to making changes. If we all started living by the belief that every person has something to offer and teach us, we would be much better off. Gender, race, age, and education should not act as qualifiers. Everyone can make an impact.  

4. Leaders set goals that are ambitious but realistic.  

When you are in poorly run facilities, you can often hear the drumbeat. It is a never-ending, fire-fighting, re-inventing-the-wheel type of atmosphere. People will often say one of the key attributes of their company is how well they come together during a crisis. I would then challenge them on how well they come together to prevent any future crisis. Basically, you are in a reactive versus proactive environment. This doesn’t mean you have to slow up the work or just hire more bodies. As leaders you need to take a hard look at how well the leaders from the front line on up are running the company. Do you have an effective continuous improvement program?   

Meredith, a millennial, recalls that as a purchaser for 16 automotive plants for 2.5 years, she was constantly putting out fires. Very expensive fires. One small part could cause entire lines to go down on the floor, and everyone turned to her to fix it. Her company was caught in a constant cycle of small temporary fixes to put out immediate crises without ever having the time necessary to fix the root issue.

In retrospect, she adds, “a major cause for this cycle was lack of company alignment, poor communication, consistent processes and training, and a proactive environment. My boss and I (both female) tried time and time again to create alignment and consistency and were continually disregarded by the plant managers and CEO’s (all male). The solutions were there, the processes were there, we took the time to train plant teams, but the follow-through from leadership and support from our CEOs was not present. Why? The answer is simple. It was a reactive versus proactive environment.”  

What It All Means

Why does all this matter? Easy!  The culture of an organization can be a common thread that binds us. The data above gives us important insights into building a strong culture that is conducive to attracting and maintaining employees across the gender, generational and ethnic spectrum. Because your leaders play a critical role of creating your culture, it is important they create the type of environment employees want to be a part of.  A while back a client asked, “What do companies with great cultures do?”  It was a great question and one where Denison had plenty of data to get an answer to.  What we found was when people in organizations with top quartile cultures describe the strengths of their culture, they describe it in terms of family. This makes total sense. Within a family we are all equal. We have purpose. We count on each other. We are not afraid to ask questions. No matter what, we have each other’s back. We have respect.    

Great cultures understand the value of all of their employees. Male, female, millennial or boomer. Great organizations do not see categories. They see people with skill sets and know how to utilize them. There are no “old boy networks.” You don’t get ahead because of the people you know. You get ahead based on what you do and how well you do it. 

While there have been definite strides made in today’s marketplace for higher inclusivity, there is still a long way to go. We aren’t just changing numbers (quotas), we are changing perceptions, organizational frameworks, and environments. This change comes from the top down. It starts with our leaders, who ultimately have the biggest impact on company culture. So, as leaders, we always need to be cognizant of the importance of each individual employee. Everyone has something to offer; everyone wants to make a difference; everyone wants to have purpose. As a leader, you can create an environment that empowers people to do so. As we make our way through 2020, one thing is clear:  The numbers show the world wants a more diverse and inclusive planet. We want to tap the whole talent pool, not just the pool that looks like us, sounds like us, and thinks like us. Therefore, focus on company culture. Build the type of culture that everyone wants to work for.

Jay Richards is a member of the founding team at Denison, a firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, specializing in corporate culture and leadership development. For 20 years, Jay has worked with manufacturing firms in improving their culture and leadership.  

Meredith Grzyb is a client manager at Denison Consulting, and an aspiring leadership coach. With 2.5 years of experience as a lead purchaser for 16 automotive plants in Canada, Mexico and the US, she is passionate about strong communication practices, organizational efficiency, and effective leadership strategies. 

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