What’s Better, a Culture Assessment or an Engagement Survey?

April 4, 2023 Jamie Notter

You have limited opportunities to survey your staff every year, so choose the survey based on the changes you think you can make once you see the results.

  • Engagement surveys measure sentiment (happy, satisfied, etc.), so the changes you can make from the results are about improving morale.
  • Culture assessments measure what is valued internally, and that drives behavior, so the changes you can make from the results are about improving performance.
  • Our WorkXO Culture Assessment adds one engagement data point (the employee Net Promoter Score) so you can combine sentiment and culture patterns in one survey.


Employee engagement surveys are about satisfaction. They have questions like, do you like coming to work every day, are you optimistic about the future of this company, are you satisified with the benefits package, do you have confidence in the leadership, etc. The goal is always to get high scores. Your results will be delivered usually with a green-yellow-red scale, and lots of green means you have high employee engagement, and lots of red means you have work to do.

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Engagement surveys tend to show you the pain points, and your job is to figure out how to alleviate that pain, which is why the focus is on employee morale. The challenge with engagement surveys is the data they produce stays on the surface. By measuring sentiment, you rarely get a true indicator of the root causes of the pain points—you simply get an indication of the pain that is on the surface. I’ve seen organizations go through a series of “whack-a-mole” exercises, where each year they measure engagement, then fix the pain points, and then the next year there is a new set of pain points that emerge, because the underlying root causes were not addressed.

Culture assessments (the good ones anyway) reveal the patterns inside your organization around what is valued. And I don’t mean high-level core values, I mean what kinds of behaviors are valued in the culture. Is risk taking okay? Do we handle our conflict directly or do we avoid it? How rigid are the boundaries between departments? Do you need permission to work cross-functionally?

Culture assessments will show you where you are on those key questions, and then it’s your job to figure out of the patterns you have right now are getting in the way of your success. Then you make changes to fix the patterns that are causing problems. One challenge with culture assessments is that they don’t have the sentiment data, so you are not sure if people are happy or unhappy with your current culture patterns. In our WorkXO culture assessment, we solve for that by asking ONE engagement question: would you recommend someone to work here. That’s not a perfect measure of engagement, but if you have to ask only one question, we think it’s the best.

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If you have a big morale problem, then an engagement survey might be better for you, because it can help isolate specific pain points that you can work on to improve morale. But if your concern is more about organizational performance and helping employees be more successful, then a culture assessment will probably help you identify the right kind of internal changes more quickly.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.