Nigel McPolin
Organisational Psychologist, etimes2 ltd

This question has been giving me some food for thought in recent times.  I have enjoyed interesting conversations with advocates of both aspects of this argument – what influences employee engagement more, high level organisational culture or that which is closer (proximate) to the employee in his/her team on a daily basis?

Some very strong professionals in my network are totally focused on the impact of organisational culture.  They argue that employee engagement is most strongly influenced by senior management and the culture created by their actions.  Do the right work with senior management and employee engagement will follow.  They believe that everything within an organisation, including performance, productivity, and engagement, is driven by culture.

On the other hand, other colleagues argue that employee engagement is most influenced by what is proximate.  They believe that individual employees are most likely to be engaged or disengaged by what happens around them in the team, regardless of the organisational culture.

So, who is right?

Organisational Culture

It has been shown time and again that a strong organisational culture correlates with a highly engaged workforce.  This is particularly true where there is strong cultural alignment, where employees perceive that the beliefs and values of the organisation closely match their own.

Is it enough to focus on organisational culture when attempting to address employee engagement in your organisation?

It makes complete sense that such high performance cultures provide employees with the opportunities, support and development to inspire them to give their discretionary effort.  Employees benefit from being challenged with high-impact projects and with goals that utilise and develop their talent.

This, in turn, creates a positive working experience because employee values and beliefs are aligned with those of the organisation.

All this suggests that organisational culture is the key driver of employee engagement.  But is this top-down approach all there is to employee engagement?  Is it simply a case of doing the right things with senior management and everything else falls into place?


If organisational culture is all-important, then why do we hear the truism “employees don’t leave organisations, they leave managers” so frequently?

This statement and all the data and research that supports it demonstrates that employees are most heavily influenced by what is closest to them.  That is, proximity plays a key role.

line-managerThis means that employees are most likely to be engaged or disengaged by what has the most significant impact on team culture: the line manager.

Investors In People tell us that our focus should be on the line manager first and foremost in any engagement strategy.  It is here where employee engagement will survive or fall.

No matter what the overall organisational culture is, the line manager represents the face of the organisation to most employees.  It is the line manager’s behaviour which influences whether an employee perceives the team as a rewarding place or a threatening place to suggest new ideas, share and discuss new information, and approaching others for help.  The line manager has a significant impact on the psychological safety within the team environment.

As a result, line managers influence whether employee engagement can happen from the bottom-up in an organisation.  Do employees feel empowered to pursue fulfilment in their current job?  Do they feel valued and that they have a voice?

>Take the Challenge – 30 development activities to become an Engaging Leader


EX2 Employee engagement platformWhile organisational culture is clearly a crucial driver of employee engagement in an organisation, employees will only be engaged when that culture is accurately reflected by their line manager.  So, proximity is ultimately more influential in creating an engaged workforce.

It is not just as simple as working with senior management to develop an engagement strategy.  Of course, senior management must be the driving force behind an engaging and high performing culture.  Line managers must be selected on leadership and interpersonal skills and then developed to live the culture.  Employees must be empowered to work, develop and pursue fulfilment within this culture and given a chance to find alignment with organisational values and beliefs.


Organisational culture vs proximity:  which do you think is more influential in employee engagement?
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