Recently I was having a discussion with a client company CEO who wanted to improve and be more purposeful in the development and perpetuation of the atmosphere within their organization. We talked about their goals, what he thought was going well, why he thought it was going well and what he thought could/should be improved. In the course this discussion he said, “Our people are very engaged. They are professionals who take great pride in their work.”

external impactOn the surface, this is great news. I mean, who wouldn’t want “very engaged professionals who take great pride in their work”? The thing that made me realize this could be a potential problem for this client was that they hadn’t purposefully created a culture for the organization. The fact that they had highly engaged people was somewhat a result of cherry picking 25 people from a pool of 600 candidates. Culture drives engagement. But, since they hadn’t purposefully created culture, what was driving this engagement? Did they accidentally allow a healthy culture to self-create? Hardly. The engagement was one of external engagement.

This company is relatively young and is carving a new path in their industry. Of course the best and brightest will gravitate to it and will be highly engaged. It is a sense of contributing to something of value and professional development, both of which are powerful drivers for engagement. These drivers, however, come from a source external to the company. There is nothing intrinsically bad about this, but if your engagement levels rely solely on external engagement your stuck dealing with an open system of which you have little to no influence.

Leadership influences culture. Culture drives engagement. Engagement creates more leadership behavior. That is a closed system which an organization can influence. Just as our client’s CEO thought any engagement is good engagement, many leaders don’t understand the source of the engagement and it can come back to bite you a bit later. I’m not suggesting that you squash the external engagement, quite the contrary. Embrace that external engagement and help nurture it into something more permanent, if possible. I am saying that it must be supplemented with a closed system whereby a healthy organizational culture influences engagement as well. This is important because if that external source of engagement ceases to provide the emotional payoff that leads to engagement, then your organization will suffer and you have absolutely no influence over it.

Engagement has a significant impact on your organization. External engagement, however, is a potential risk and should be treated as such. Celebrate and embrace it as long as it is a positive contributor. Internal engagement is much more desirable because it operates in a closed system and gives you influence over that process.

Let external and internal engagement work side by side, but work hard to make the emotional rewards from you internal engagement efforts be higher than those of the external engagement. If, or when, the external engagement drivers go away, the people in your organization can still see the benefit of remaining engaged and you’re not stuck with trying to scramble efforts to begin improving internal engagement.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen or experienced external engagement? What affect did it have when that external engagement driver went away?

  • Dave

    Great post on engagement. I was not totally aware on different types of employee engagement, since the phrase gets tossed around frequently. One thing that I would like to add would be role of core values in culture. In this case, they hired the candidates likely for their alignment of core values with the organization. But as you have indicated, without a strong and directed culture to keep everything going in the same direction, the effectiveness of leadership would diminish over time.

  • Great point Dave. Values make up the foundation of any culture. The effectiveness of leadership may still be high, but only in certain areas. The efficacy of leadership influencing engagement (in this scenario) is what would diminish over time. Thanks for your contribution!

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  • William,

    Great post. This key phrase, is the essence, “Let external and internal engagement work side by side, but work hard to make the emotional rewards from you internal engagement efforts be higher than those of the external engagement.”

    I wonder how many leaders understand the difference. My experience is that it’s rare for leaders to have the fundamental knowledge required to understand human dynamics, emotional meaning and the basic neuroscience of how reward/threat works.

    Perhaps the growing “talent war” is partly due to a recognition that culture is key and many leaders don’t know how to build it. So the logical solution seems to be – go and get it from the outside.

    I also think that when orgs “import” culture, they can de-motivate current employees, especially long time ones. I think this is becoming more problematic with Silicon giants trying to import new talent. Internal and external engagement is a delicate balance.


  • Agreed that leaders struggle to create culture well. It comes from 2 things that I have noticed: A lack of understanding of the relational connection between leadership and culture – and secondly, an honest ignorance of the connection between cultural drivers and organizational vision.

    Thanks so much for your contribution Louise!