Quite recently, I was part of a discussion with several of my colleagues in the Engagement Task Force about the way their organisations were getting important messages through to the workforce, and specifically about employee engagement communications strategies.
It was interesting on a number of levels:
1. They seemed to accept that getting these messages through was the responsibility of HR or, in a couple of instances, an internal communications function.
2. The purpose of those communications seemed to be solely to increase engagement (and particularly the ‘scores’ in the annual employee survey) rather than to achieve understanding. They also focused heavily on how the results or impact of these communications could be measured, analysed and tabulated so they could ‘present’ them in some way to show progress.
3. They appeared to view the ‘workforce’ as a homogeneous group of people that exist discretely as an entity.
Now, given that these are the very people who form part of the movement to increase employee engagement in the UK and who are tasked with providing guidance to practitioners on how to do so, this gave me pause. I have several problems with that conversation, and I will explain them here in the hope that you will look critically at your own organisation, colleagues and indeed yourself to consider whether your approach to this is something you’re comfortable with.
Who’s responsible for your employee engagement communications strategy?
Employee engagement, and the communications strategy that goes with it, is not the responsibility of HR. Even less is it the responsibility of internal communications, which is often derived from a marketing function and concerned with making a message ‘land’ in a particular way.
Let me be clear: employee engagement is the direct responsibility of leaders – at every level, but especially at the top. True engagement should be the result of connecting people emotionally and intellectually to the work of the organisation in the pursuit of a worthwhile vision. It is not about coming up with good campaigns or activities to make people feel engaged in nothing in particular – like a good advertising campaign attempting to sell a so-so product.
It is up to leaders to articulate a vision and goals at every level that are worth getting out of bed for. Increasing return on assets by 3% isn’t going to do it; you need to understand what is worthy about your work and what good it delivers, and engage people with their part in that.
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Why communicate to engage?
The purpose of engagement is not to increase the scores in the annual survey, whether or not it is connected to your bonus. Even if you believe the survey gives you an accurate and complete picture, the scores should reflect how enthused and connected people feel, not how well you’ve managed to manipulate them into believing or saying they are.
My impression of some of these surveys is that they seek to prove something is happening even though common sense tells you that it isn’t. Like government statistics that show inflation is still low, even though your grocery bill every week demonstrates starkly to you that, at a practical level, it is not.
Ultimately, the purpose of engaging through communication is to build a shared purpose that everyone is motivated towards, and surveys can be used as just one of many indicators that this is happening.
But some of these leaders do want more than a mirage. As the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham memorably said, “The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes”. In this context, I take that to mean that many leaders may not really want to engage their people, but they do want the benefits.
They want the scores and the results of greater engagement, such as increased productivity, performance improvements, and enhanced bottom line. They just don’t always want to put in the hard yards to make it happen, not if a few token actions and campaigns can produce an acceptable facsimile of engagement that they can show in a report, and which they can assume will reap the rewards they seek. Not good enough, by a very long chalk.
What is the ‘workforce’?
The ‘workforce’ as a concept does not exist.
There is no homogeneous entity with which you can communicate. Instead, it is a disparate and diverse group of individuals with their own lives, their own experiences and their own views. Viewing them as a single organism makes as much sense as viewing a whole village or small town as one team.
There is no message you can construct that will resonate consistently across a group of hundreds or thousands of people, whatever your internal communications people tell you. The only consistency that you can hope to achieve is an understanding among your leaders that each can share and reinforce at a local level, every day.
Making a global pronouncement is probably necessary at some level, but you have to recognise that it is largely window-dressing and box-ticking. The message has to be worth communicating and sharing deeply across your leaders. They then have to take every opportunity to make it relevant and reinforce it to every person individually. End of.
In summary, then: It isn’t really about how you put the message across or how you measure and show the impact. Those things matter, but nowhere near as much as being clear about the real message, believing it to be right to your very soul, enthusing your leader colleagues about it because it’s something worth getting enthusiastic about (not just because it makes them a few extra quid) and because you know, in your heart, that people will be energised, uplifted and proud to be part of it, and therefore will give their utmost to make it happen.
That’s the point. That’s engagement. Which just leaves one question.
What’s your message?
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