Kirsty Bashforth, founder and CEO of QuayFive and an experienced Non-Executive Director, advises CEOs with FTSE 100 as well as global clients across multiple sectors on change, culture and leadership.

During her 24 years at BP plc, Kirsty designed and delivered a shift in organisational culture from 2010-2015 as the Group Head of Organisational Effectiveness. In her book, Culture Shift – A Practical Guide to Managing Organizational Culture (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kirsty explores how to put culture at the core of your business and manage culture change successfully.

In this interview with Engage for Success, Kirsty shares her views on:

  • The relationship between engagement, culture and strategy
  • How to understand and evaluate culture in practical terms
  • What employee engagement says about your culture
  • The value of employee engagement in facilitating a culture shift
  • How different cultures require different approaches to engagement

The Relationship Between Engagement, Culture and Strategy

All are inextricably interlinked and should not be managed in isolation.

“Businesses depend on people, but people are not automatons. We choose to work. Our needs and motivations vary massively, but we are all more productive when we feel a genuine connection to what we do and why we do it. That sense of connection – that engagement – is what helps align our actions and behaviours with the purpose and ambitions of the organisation.

Organisational culture shapes the conditions in which colleagues understand and work to deliver your strategy. Engagement is a vital ingredient in productivity and retention – an enabling ‘super fuel’ for your strategy that also feeds back into the company culture. Under the right conditions, engagement can flourish and strategy can achieve greater levels of success.

High engagement and strong culture are no guarantee of success by themselves, though, just like brilliant strategy doesn’t deliver itself. Without clear strategic direction, the efforts of your employees will be little more than Brownian motion. And yet, without high engagement and strong culture, your chances of realising strategic ambitions are slim to none.

Getting it right is about ensuring all three are managed together in harmony.”

How to Understand and Evaluate Culture in Practical Terms

Culture shift should not be approached lightly. Before leaping into change, develop a detailed understanding of your culture, including how it helps or hinders your ambitions and what adjustments may therefore be necessary.

“What we call ‘culture’, is the sum of all behaviours and decision-making of an organisation, including expectations, assumptions, perceptions, norms, habits and influences. Some see culture as amorphous and intangible; others try to pin it down to the nth degree. In reality, it’s a mix of quantitative and qualitative, with a pinch of gut feel. Trying to define it precisely will probably trap you in measurement limbo.

To know your culture better, try investigating from these three angles:

  • Strategic – official statements about your culture, such as those on the company website and in the annual report
  • Social – informal networks, ‘typical us’ anecdotes and the ways of working and behaving that people revert to without direction
  • Political – why and how decisions are really made, and who really makes them

In an ideal world these all align, but they rarely do. So, take a long, hard look around your organisation – across all levels and into all the corners.  Be honest – you may not see what you want to see, but it is what it is. Ignoring it won’t help you.”

What Employee Engagement Can Tell You About Your Culture

Analysing employee engagement across the organisation can add another important dimension whilst helping identify areas of risk that may need to be addressed.

“Evidence of declining engagement (low survey scores or response rates, for example) clearly shows that something isn’t right and may be an indicator of cultural issues. Review your evidence against the three facets of culture outlined above, and the candid picture you’re developing. Any patterns or trends that emerge may signal specific challenges you need to address.

For example, employees who prefer steady state might grow disengaged in a culture that needs to become more disruptive. It doesn’t mean your new culture or approach to engagement is wrong, but it might signal cultural incompatibility between your current workforce and your future organisation.

Never rely on surveys alone, of course. They’re a great way in, but you need to dig deeper. Combine engagement scores with other data to create a picture that’s as rich and well-rounded as possible.”

The Value of Employee Engagement in Facilitating a Culture Shift

If adjustments are required, employee engagement becomes a critical success factor for delivering and embedding change.

“Real change happens better and faster when people embrace and actively support it. You can respond to challenges and opportunities more quickly and easily and build better momentum. They need to understand and identify with the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. They need to see the bigger picture, share your vision for what could be and have a desire to be part of it.

We don’t all jump for joy in the face of change, though. Typically, you’ll find one-third for, one-third against, and one-third in the middle. The naturally engaged will just get stuck into bringing your new culture to life. All you need to do is harness their energy and give them focus and direction. Don’t obsess about those who can’t or won’t change either, unless they’re actively fighting against it.

Focus instead on the group in the middle: the passive sceptics, the followers, the fence-sitters, the cautious. You’ll have to work hard to win them over but doing so can be game-changing. Do it – and keep doing it – right, and you’ll see a rising, rippling tide of positive peer influence spread across your organisation. Proactive peer-to-peer advocacy and role-modelling beats traditional top-down cascade any time and can be invaluable in legitimising change and overcoming resistance.”

Different Cultures Require Different Approaches to Engagement

The right approach to engaging employees may differ depending on the type of culture most suitable for your organisation.

“No two organisations are the same – they’re all unique combinations of people with different backgrounds, ambitions and so on. There’s no right or wrong, just variations of what works and what doesn’t. Additionally – and especially if you’re striving for a shift in culture – think about how well your channels and tactics resonate with the culture you want.

For instance, if you’re aspiring for a more collegial culture, telling people how to change won’t work regardless of how you go about it. You need a two-way approach, and you must work, and listen, hard to find out what people really want to say.

Another example: adopting a new approach to communication can signal change in a very visible way. Email cascade may be the norm, but if your future culture is all about innovation, introducing a new and innovative channel to broadcast your message – and facilitate feedback – can be a powerful statement in itself.

Keeping things fresh and continuously improving is important anyway, of course. Real change takes time, tried and tested methods lose impact and – like strategy – culture and engagement are for life, not just for breakfast.

Regardless of what works best, both culture and engagement should be held strategically. Our colleagues are key to our success, just like investors and customers. We can’t function without them, and that means striving to ensure everything – and everyone – is working together in harmony, inside and out.”

Kirsty Bashforth was interviewed by Oliver Blackwell, Business Writer at Meaningful and EFS Virtual Content Team volunteer.

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