6 Ways Engineering Firms Can Assess Their Culture’s Effect on Performance

By Heather Campbell

Want to be an innovative, problem-solving engineering firm with significant top and bottom-line growth?

If you do, you need to get your organisational culture right.The link between organisational culture and company performance has been proven time after time.

But just what culture should you be striving to develop in your engineering organisation? What culture will build the performance that sets your business apart?

There is no one set of cultural elements that guarantees success – that would be too easy.

However, in this blog I bring together six measures of successful organisational culture that will have particular resonance in engineering organisations.  They have been highlighted across a range of research as essential in driving high performance.

1. Senior leaders’ behaviour is consistent and cohesive

Regular readers of my blog will know that I constantly highlight the impact of senior leaders in your organisation. Assessing whether you have a great culture is no exception.

Your senior leaders’ behaviour must tie in with the culture you want to see, it must be consistentand it must be demonstrated by every senior leader.

If senior leaders’ behaviour is not aligned, or different leaders demonstrate different behaviours, this is adversely affecting your organisation’s performance – full stop.

2. Employees are demonstrably, highly valued

It’s all too easy in the task-focussed world of engineering to overlook good people management practices.

But this must change. New people-focussed practices in high-profile organisations attract engineers who are already in short supply.

For example, from the West Coast of the USA to Dublin, Ireland, companies such as Google are attracting engineers that would previously have chosen to work for more ‘tried and tested’ companies because of their focus on creating the right culture for their people (see Culture: Why It’s The Hottest Topic In Business Today.)

This doesn’t mean you have to install climbing frames in your building or a Crazy Golf course in the company car park.  More pragmatic approaches that show employees they really matter include monthly one-to-one meetings between managers and direct reports, meaningful performance reviews and regular feedback about performance.

3. Mistakes are welcomed as an opportunity to learn

It’s far too easy to churn out the old line, “We have a no-blame culture here,” with the rhetoric rarely living up to the reality.

Truly welcoming mistakes as an opportunity to learn means you must reduce the fear in your organisation that leads to people colluding and covering up mistakes rather than exposing them and learning from them. To learn more about this, check out The Impact of Organizational Culture on Approaches to Organizational Problem-Solving by Paul Bate from the University of Bath School of Management.

4. A ‘macho’ culture is discouraged

Mark Carne, speaking about the macho culture in Network Rail, points out that greater gender diversity is one key to building a more productive culture.

In my experience, ‘macho’ cultures are found in many engineering sectors and consistently affect performance adversely.

In one IT company, a bullying boss drove a culture where 24/7 availability was part of the macho culture, and tearing a strip off colleagues in order to show them up was de rigueur.

This simply drove a culture of fear and ‘cover-your-back’ behaviours, such as copying far too many people on emails. This culture significantly reduced performance.

5. Measured risk-taking is expected

Whether operating machinery in the heavy engineering sector or creating expensive prototypes to solve global problems, engineering sectors are inherently risky.

At the same time, operating in a world with increasing focus on safety and tighter profit margins can mean that risk-taking becomes increasingly muted.

In healthy engineering cultures, risk-taking is encouraged, albeit with clear boundaries in place.  It is a challenge for any organisation to get the delicate cultural balance required just right. But too strong a focus on controls and constraints (which I find is more common in engineering than a ‘laissez-faire’ attitude) will stifle the necessary pushing of boundaries that will enable your organisation to jump ahead.

Or to put it another way: “Today’s marvels are yesterday’s calculated gambles.”

6. There is an immutable focus on integrity right from the top

Time after time, integrity in all dealings – with employees, with customers and with suppliers – is identified as a driving force in a high performance culture (see The Defining Elements of a Winning Culture, HBR).

Integrity builds trust and trust builds a sense of engagement, commitment and loyalty – three critical elements in engineering companies where recruiting and retaining quality engineers is a growing problem.

Truly operating with integrity can be a challenge when it comes down to the day-to-day realities of business.  It means sharing unpalatable news with employees early and without positive spin, it means being open with them about information that may previously have been considered too sensitive to share.  In short, it means operating in a way that runs counter to current practice in many engineering organisations.


Progressive engineering companies seek to create cultures that enable high performance.  Those that do not are finding that they fail to attract the best engineers, struggle to work efficiently and don’t get the bottom line growth they are seeking.

While there is no ‘high performance blueprint’ for the perfect engineering culture, there are elements that are particularly worthy of your attention because they will drive up performance:

  • Senior leaders’ behaviour is consistent and cohesive
  • Employees are demonstrably highly valued
  • Mistakes are welcomed as an opportunity to learn
  • A ‘macho’ culture is discouraged
  • Measured risk-taking is encouraged
  • There is an immutable focus on integrity right from the top
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