Communication: The Cornerstone of an Engaged Workforce Culture

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Jan 24, 2011

By Bob Kelleher

Every company would like to capitalize on the potential benefits of employee engagement, but few executives and managers grasp the full investment required in terms of culture shift and in communication.

Employers won’t realize the gains of engagement without first acquiring full staff investment in the company. And you can’t get full staff investment without making engagement part of your corporate brand.

The terms “brand” and “branding” have suffered from overuse in corporate vocabulary recently. But to go back to Marketing 101 for a moment, it’s important to note that when we talk about “brand,” we aren’t referring simply to your company’s logo or tagline, or to the promises it makes to its customers or clients, or to its place and stature in the marketplace.

One of the better definitions of “brand” that I’ve heard is: “a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer.” I would be inclined to take this one step further and say that a brand also involves the emotional resonance of those perceptions.

What does branding have to do with engagement? More than you may think.

We’ve talked about the ability, willingness, and zeal on the part of employees to deliver your company’s “elevator pitch” as important hallmarks of engagement. Essentially, what your people are doing in that brief spiel is communicating your brand, and obviously, this is vital to the pursuit of new business, new recruits, or potential collaborative relationships.

However, the need to instill your brand in your employees does not begin and end with how they speak with people on the outside – your customers, clients, recruits, and business peers. In fact, those audiences may be “1b” priorities for your message.

What and how employees communicate with one another is “1a.” In the mini-society of the workplace, attitudes (whether good or bad) are infectious. Confusion, cynicism, disinvestment, and apathy may not be communicated verbally, but if they are part of your company’s atmosphere, everyone’s breathing the same stale air.

If your brand has negative connotations internally, you have an uphill battle ahead of you in getting your employees engaged. They are the first line “consumers” of your message, and their perceptions and emotional responses are profoundly important.

To cite one example, I recall reading an article many years ago about a study of U.S. companies that were striving to determine the front runners in terms of employee benefits programs. To do this, the researchers assessed and compared two data streams: the facts and figures of the programs themselves, and employee surveys designed to evaluate how staff themselves gauged and ranked their companies’ benefits.

The results were surprising, although you may have guessed their characteristics by now. The employee survey results bore no relationship to the metrics of the actual benefits programs themselves. In case after case, the companies that excelled at internally promoting the benefits they offered were more highly regarded than those that offered quantifiably “better” programs.

In other words, the companies that branded their benefits – that created emotional resonance with the experience of those programs in their staff – were the winners.

Communicate: We must win together

It’s important to remember that employees want to work for a winner.

Just as they want to be able to sing the praises of their company’s innovation, creativity, significance, and market position, they want to be proud of how successful their workplace is in inspiring them, supporting them, and keeping them fired up. This is an important link between company and employee goals, and if you can capitalize on it, you are well on your way to an engaged culture.

The message must be that “we are all in this together.” You need to communicate your objectives and goals often, and report on your progress.

If having an engaged culture is an objective (and I hope I’m making the case that it should be), you need to communicate this to your employees and reiterate it at every opportunity, using whatever vehicles are available (newsletters, weekly meetings, e-mail signatures, social media, letters and memos from upper management, etc.).

Don’t worry about seeming redundant. A communications consultant once told me that in this era of e-mail, text messages, online forums, blogs, and Twitter, employees need to hear or read something 13 times before they absorb it. (And, as an aside, I’ve never heard of anyone who quit a company because there was too much communication. Have you?)

Clarity, Transparency, Measurement, and Accountability

Whether the message is explicitly about engagement or not, leaders need to tell employees where the company is going as a whole; why it’s going there; and how it’s going to get there. (And in a truly engaged culture, leaders establish a venue in which their employees have a voice in determining both the path and the destination.)

These goals have to be shared at every level, from corporate through district through region through office through individual line manager. If goals aren’t frequently stated and widely known, updates on progress are meaningless.

If, for example, your company has six key elements in its strategic plan, simply circulating the plan itself will not incline employees to invest in it. Each person needs to know how his or her job fits into the plan, and what results at each milestone will constitute success or failure.

Enlightened companies weave the key elements of their strategic plan into the firm’s performance appraisal/employee development process, to create and maintain a “line of sight” from individual positions toward the company’s goals.

Business is not T-Ball

Many companies or managers are hesitant to communicate news of setbacks or losses, fearing that they will contribute to demoralization. In fact, almost the reverse is true. In order to feel invested, employees need to know how the business is doing in relationship to its goals.

I frequently remind managers, “Business is not T-Ball,” to reinforce the hard fact that companies need to make money. If employees have a sense of how their efforts contribute to the greater good, news of the overall state-of-the-company will produce a “How can I help?” outlook when things aren’t going well, rather than simply “How can I benefit?” when they are.

I’ve often found it ironic that some managers in underperforming business units or departments, having participated wholeheartedly in workshops I’ve led and digested the 360-degree feedback that is part of the process, are reluctant to move on to the critical next step: sharing the actual results with employees. “We don’t want to demoralize our staff!” they exclaim.

We could characterize this concern as retrograde, or perhaps more charitably as protective or paternalistic. But these judgments miss the point: you simply can’t get to engagement without honest communication.

Imagine a sports team whose players were kept in the dark about whether they were winning or losing, or where no one knew how the team ranked in relationship to its opposition. Would you expect them to improve?

Employees need to know whether their business unit or department is ahead of the curve, on par, or falling short of its goals. If a business is only on par, or average, I am a strong supporter of identifying high performing business units or departments and sharing the relevant internal benchmarks and best practices.

Remarkably, (perhaps because of pride) many leaders do not want to reach out to high performing business units within their own companies to ask for advice or assistance. If this is the case, interchanges facilitated by internal or external practitioners are a safe way to share high performing norms without managers’ having to ask for advice or help.

To stand the test of time, an engagement plan must provide a means by which performance is candidly addressed. Again, employees want to win.

No one wants to be considered average. You can’t improve if you don’t know you’re underperforming.

Excerpted from Louder Than Words: Ten Practical Employee Engagement Steps That Drive Results, by Bob Kelleher. Copyright ©2010 by Bob Kelleher. Published by BLKB Publishing, 7336 SE Tibbetts Street, Portland, Oregon, 97206. All rights reserved.

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