By Jean Cunningham, President, Jean Cunningham Consulting

What is culture? What is the current state of the culture? I believe in the genius of people and of the people in our workforce. What is the environment that allows the genius to be fully actualized?

I think about this question often, because I think the key to achieving the greatest outcomes of the organization are based on the engagement of the people in the organization. My thoughts on this subject are not based on science or empirical evidence. It is based on my observations and experiences of how people interact with each other in the workplace throughout my career, as an individual, manager, and executive in corporations, as a consultant/coach, and as a self-employed person. Perhaps my views have been or could be supported scientifically or statistically. I do not know. I offer them to you for your own reflection and to help you think about your own beliefs, and how you might realize them in the work place.

I have organized my thoughts around four elements in ascending order of engagement: Isolation, Involvement, Empowerment and Engagement. I provide a few points on each element: both what they mean to me and examples of how they emerge in a group-based work setting.


  • People have roles with assigned duties and limits.
  • An accounts payable clerk, a supervisor of the audit team, a CAD operator.
  • Very little interaction outside of their specific team.
  • Most peers have the same role and they are surrounded by others with different but very tightly described roles.
  • High level of self-identification with a role or function. “I am an engineer.” “We are the accounting team.” “I am the East Coast distribution associate sales representative.”
  • Little information, discussion or focus on company purpose. Focus is on role purpose.


  • Routinely exposed to the work of other people within my team or other teams.
  • Provided information about the business unit or team activities.
  • Occasionally asked to help in other areas when there is overload or temporary demand.
  • Given extra tasks occasionally to support a project or special activity.


  • Encouraged and expected to identify improvements in own work area.
  • Understands purpose of work team, and company so can make decisions within area of responsibility and with other functional team members.
  • Occasionally included in cross-functional activities to improvement work processes (like kaizen events).
  • Do not have to get approval before making changes within scope of job.
  • Encouraged and expected to speak up and participant in activities outside of the role.


  • Fully knowledgeable of purpose of company, customer expectations, and current challenges.
  • Collaborative upstream and downstream improvement focus.
  • Encouraged and routinely experiments with other to improve overall work processes.
  • Improvement fully embraced as “real work”.
  • Communication with bosses, peers and subordinates is collaborative, sharing, and challenging.
  • Problems are seen as ways to get to an improved future state.

Think about how you can engage employees and provide themĀ opportunities to participate outside a specific role or function.

Jean Cunningham is President of Jean Cunningham Consulting and former CFO of two manufacturing companies. She is co-author of Real Numbers: Management Accounting in a Lean Organization, as well as severalother books.