Employees gather on stairs

Employee Engagement: Challenging a ridiculous idea with a human alternative

One of the most pervasive influences on internal communication is based on a ridiculous idea.

The ridiculous idea is that there’s something called “employee engagement” that can be measured on a scale of one to 100.

Even with breakthroughs leading to improved technology, empowerment and communication occurring over the last 20 years, the idea that employee engagement is a linear concept that can be refined into a single, almighty score persists.

From time to time, individual companies such as KPMG have openly questioned the value of employee engagement surveys. 

But the pursuit of the singular goal of ever-higher “employee engagement” has retained much of its popularity. 

Commonly held “near-myths” sustain the engagement juggernaut:

  • Employee engagement is about improving employee morale, commitment, satisfaction and productivity.
  • Employee engagement is linear, starting at a point of “zero” or “disengaged,” and moving progressively upward to ”engaged,” with all employees falling somewhere on that scale.
  • Employee engagement is about employees, full stop.
  • There is a causal relationship between increased engagement scores and improved performance, more than just a correlation (even though none has been proven).

In addition, there’s been a moralistic tone to this push – a belief that employee engagement is the state that all companies should pursue for all employees. Companies that reject this view are bad, wrong and unenlightened.

A different view

Even though these are common themes, I chose to look for an alternative perspective. Here’s how Webster’s Dictionary defines “engage”:

  • to pledge oneself 
  • to begin and carry on an enterprise or activity
  • to take part 
  • to give attention to something :  
  • to enter into conflict or battle
  • to come together and interlock (as of machinery parts) : be or become in gear

Building on Webster’s definition, an alternative view of engagement emerges:

  • There is no such thing as “disengagement,” as long as an individual has any involvement or interest with an organization.
  • Engagement is neither a virtue nor a vice, but merely a characterization of the nature and intensity of one’s relationship with an organization.

Enter the human dimension: six engagement personas

Looking at Webster’s definition, I’ve identified six different personas reflecting different motivations and producing distinct types of relationships:

  • Mary E. Ternity (The engagement of the “ring”)—mutual, heartfelt, emotional commitment
  • Matt Grappler (The engagement of the “mat”)—wrestling: active disagreement, but within a productive context
  • Smith N. Wesson (The engagement of the “rifle”)—battle: active opposition
  • Lee Seamless (The engagement of the “gearshift”)—mechanical: productivity without resistance or grief
  • Mercy Nairy (The engagement of the “hawk”)—reward seeking: focused on individual outcomes and recognition
  • Van Gough (The engagement of the “artist”)—perfection seeking, focused on fulfilling and developing personal standards

Mary E. Ternity: The engagement of the ring

Mary E. Ternity is the employee with what many employers and employee engagement survey providers consider “the right kind of engagement.” 

With apologies to JRR Tolkien, I call this “the engagement of the ring” – a willingness to provide a level of exceptional emotional commitment, supernormal productivity and unbounded corporate enthusiasm manifesting itself in generous degrees of “discretionary effort.”

The biggest question facing Mary’s employer is the extent to which it must reciprocate Mary’s commitment. 

Additionally, if the employer really wants all employees to mimic Mary’s commitment, will the price be a culture that stifles dissent, innovation and change? 

If engagement is about “extraordinary mutual commitment” and there are deep senses of obligation on both sides, can such an organization withstand competition from companies whose approaches are honest but far more flexible?

I do see companies for whom Mary would be their primary employee persona—companies in which personal involvement in the product or the process of delivering it makes it a unique, premium offering. 

Effectively achieving “engagement of the ring” needs to balance exceptional commitment sought from its managers and staff, with sustained and sustainable organizational commitment from leadership that withstands competitive and economic challenges.

Matt Grappler: The engagement of the mat

Matt Grappler is an engaged employee – but engaged in a very different way from Mary. 

Matt is often agitating, fighting or struggling with the organization, its culture and processes. 

In this way, he is a “wrestler,” fighting in a controlled way on the “mat.” In those fights and arguments, Matt is standing up for what he sees as the organization’s interests, seeking innovation and improvements. 

At a broader level, disagreements within organizations can bring friction, discord and disruption. 

Many such disagreements yield or prompt the realizations and realignments that make organizations more responsive to customers, more efficient to operate and more honest places in which to work. 

The willingness to initiate those fights and arguments is not a form of “disengagement”, but rather a keen form of engagement that can be valuable to an ambitious and competitive organization. But you wouldn’t know that from Matt’s engagement score.

Lee Seamless: The engagement of the gearshift

For many people, work is about going to the plant or the office, doing everything that comes across the desk, and going home and getting on with the rest of their lives – taking care of the kids, or the boat for that matter.  

Lee Seamless is that kind of employee. 

The engagement survey might consider Lee “disengaged.” 

But Lee’s way of working is actually a mechanical type of engagement—coming into the process, doing her bit and leaving work matters at the door at the end of the day.

This kind of engagement and the organizations that foster it are heavily criticized by those who see “engagement” as a moral imperative. 

But for Lee, it works. 

And for Lee’s employer and others like it, the “engagement of the gearshift” endures because there are many employees who do not want jobs or positions that interfere with their non-work lives: They want to go to work, do their jobs, go home and devote their mental energy to their children, churches, activities or communities.

This is not to say that the “engagement of the gearshift” must be purely one way and transactional. Effective engagement within such organizations can be built out of an honest understanding of organizational, employee and manager ambitions, and by identifying opportunities where participation can strengthen the organization’s commercial offerings or production processes.

Mercy Nairy and Van Gough (The engagement of the hawk/the engagement of the artist)

Mercy Nairy and Van Gough are two different personas with one common characteristic: a highly self-oriented sense of what they want to get out of their respective organizations. 

Mercy practices the “engagement of the hawk” – a focus on personal triumph and financial reward. 

Van is driven by the “engagement of the artist” – a desire to pursue the perfection of his chosen craft.

In a world where the contractor and embedded consultant play an increasingly important internal role in organizations, engagement with people belonging to either of these two species tends to be highly individualized, thus challenging an overall engagement framework that tends to exalt long-term mutual harmony. 

Smith N. Wesson:The engagement of the rifle

Current models of “engagement” tend to consider active hostility, opposition or sabotage characteristic of “disengaged” employees (or for that matter, “disengaged” managers or corporate alumni).

But, while disgruntled, people like Smith N. Wesson are actually profoundly engaged. 

They care about the organization, and they are determined to pay it back for any real or imagined offenses. This is the engagement of the rifle – an active but destructive form of engagement.

The “engagement” of Smith and those like him can undermine the enthusiasm of fellow staff members. 

They can make claims about product and service quality within their social networks. In company towns they can spread rumors that can undermine the stability of the company/community relationship. 

What’s important about looking at the “engagement of the rifle” is not simply that people so engaged are aggressive and hostile. Instead, they demonstrate a level and intensity of engagement that can be channeled and harnessed in a more appropriate direction.

For many organizations, finding a way to identify, address and channel “rifle-engagement” more productively – creating closure and reconciliation – could actually be the kind of engagement effort they need most.

In closing

I propose these “six engagement personas” to challenge the pervasive view that “employee engagement” is a linear idea, while employees, be they good (engaged), bad (apathetic or disengaged) and ugly (actively disengaged) people, are actually quite a non-linear bunch.

People engage in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. Organizations engage in varied ways as well. 

Recognizing, respecting and, above all, optimizing this diversity—and looking for the right combination of folks like Matt, Lee, Mercy and Van to be Mary’s teammates – is a way that offers a more interesting and potentially more dynamic future than seeking a perpetual “engagement of the ring.”

Insights, Internal Communication Strategy

M&A communication: what do you need to know to be effective?

M&A integration, and the internal and change communication that are essential to its success, is an enduring topic that communication leaders need to pay continuous attention to.

Having been involved in merger communication since the late ’90s, I’ve developed a number of insights and ideas about how communication professionals can best support effective M&A transactions.

Here are some questions and insights.

How are communications in mergers and acquisitions different to standard internal communications or change communication?

M&A essentially involves a minimum of 3 organizations (parties) simultaneously. The first two are the current acquirer and the acquiree, who both have their individual internal communication challenges, and the third is the vision of the future integrated organization.

The relationship between those three depends on the nature of the transaction; whether it’s an acquisition, a true merger, or a reverse takeover. The key difference in M&A internal communication is that you need to know which of those 3 organizations you’re dealing with at any given point in time.

Some acquirers will want to race to a superficial ‘integration’ too quickly, where the communications are integrated before the organization. This makes the look and feel of the transaction outpace the operational reality, and creates a gap that can be problematic internally and externally. Being able to balance these 3 parties effectively requires a great deal of strategic and political skill, both from a consulting perspective and an internal dynamics perspective.

Internal Communications are in a unique mediating position between C-Suite/Upper Level Management and the regular employee, and they need to be facilitate broad interaction between them. How does Internal Communications approach this?

There’s a lot of potential for conflict here between the C-Suite and employees. Most Merger & Acquisition situations are created because there’s room for efficiencies.

While the organization is thinking ambitiously and strategically, in the background the discussion is actually about ‘What’s going to happen to my job after this?’. The challenge there is being able to enroll employees in that more ambitious vision, into the logic of the transaction, and into the integration of the two different companies as being the best answer for the most employees.

If you’re not addressing job insecurity, that can feed into more insecurity. ‘We’re going to have a fantastic future, and you may or may not be part of it’ is not a good message. Beyond communications, it’s important to go in with a robust set of principles about how values will be considered and how employment decisions and will be taken.

How should you address job insecurity?

For the most part, you can’t address it immediately because you simply don’t know where the synergies are going to be. You may have inclinations based on the original goals of the integration and the extent people are part of that. The key thing is figuring out why the transaction is taking place, and having people principles that are better than standard. Don’t just do the legal minimum, it can have a massive negative impact.

Do you believe that there’s too much of a focus on the financial/strategic elements of a transaction and not enough of a focus on the people/culture elements?

The issue isn’t whether there’s enough of a focus on people and culture, it starts with the level of thought. There’s a lot of thought on maximizing the financial value of assets, but the reality is a lot of those assets are connected with people, values, culture and processes.

The asset itself is not always driving the value, and how to unlock this value isn’t always considered – most M&A’s just start with a desire to do so. This is where a lot of transactions go wrong. You buy a brand, and treat it as a logo, but you then get rid of what the logo has come to mean. Suddenly, that asset has lost all its value. You need to look at what you’re buying and who you’re buying, and not let the drive for efficiency kill the asset you’re acquiring.

When some employees hear the word ‘acquisition’, they immediately start packing up their desks. How can you anticipate these issues and prevent your top talent from leaving?

Top and mid-talent issues happen on both sides of the acquisition. Even people who would be interested in applying to one of these companies might stay away if they see impending M&A activity.

You need to be clear about what the ambitions are generally and what the processes are specifically, so that people can have some faith in the process and actively participate instead of leaving at the first opportunity.

How effective do you believe smaller team-building activities are to the success of an acquisition? Is it worth going into the forest and building a raft?

Variable. If your goal is to genuinely integrate as opposed to simply having a ‘business as usual’ arrangement, you first want to do an Organizational Network Analysis (ONA). ONA is essentially a form of organizational due diligence that identifies social patterns in at least one, but ideally in both of the companies involved.

ONA can surface the 3% of employees who drive 90% of conversations. If you can do that, you can get a much smaller group of people who can drive the integration on the basis of knowledge and connection, before you invite everybody to a resort to play paddle tennis.

Team Building can be useful, but trying to team-build tens of thousands of people can be superficial unless you do an ONA and find the people driving the organization on each side. This has become even more crucial in the wake of the dispersion of professional staff caused by the pandemic.

Will people be open to the possibility of integrating and forming these connections if you haven’t already communicated to them about job security? Can you communicate about these in tandem or does one come first?

You can’t communicate about job security first. You can’t know who’s staying and who’s leaving until you’ve done your ONA or your role mapping exercise and know about the value people bring. Even though most people will want to know what their status will be, they also know that the best way they can protect their status is to participate as well as they can, provided they have a meaningful way to do so and that the process isn’t disingenuous.

If people sense that the decision has already been made and they’re still being asked to participate as if it hadn’t, that can become a real problem. But if they see that it’s an ongoing process, they will participate more in that process.

Do you need to guarantee communication even if you can’t guarantee content, or is no news good news?

No, you need to be very clear about what your communication principles are. If you say ‘we will publish a regular communication on this specific day and it will be there’, it has to be there. Regular communication is an indicator of the seriousness of management.

Which is more important – the facts, or trying to be as empathetic as possible?

The facts should come first. You need to be cognizant of how people feel and not inflict additional pain onto that process.

In one merger I worked on, any bad news came from the acquiree and any good news came from the acquirer. That wasn’t accidental. The problem when you have corporate empathy is that it can come off more corporate instead of empathy. And there’s no value in injecting something like that into messages, it can make people not want to participate anymore.

When anything that can go wrong is going wrong, people are leaving, not buying into the vision, how should you approach that?

Eyes on the prize.

What do you want to achieve with this transaction and is that something people can genuinely align with and embrace?

Once you have an honest discussion about that, you rebuild the communications. This is where we’re going, this is why, this is how we’re going to treat people and this is what you get out of this.

It looks like remote work is going to be around for a while. How will this affect the future of internal communications in M&A?

Team integration is going to be an issue. How do you get people from Company A to be effective in Company B, not just doing the basics, but also understanding the processes and the people, and how they’re different from what they are used to in Company A? People need to be introduced to each other, there’s a human integration and a practical integration. You need to deal with this as being a distinct process.

What is the biggest difference between internal and external in an M&A context?

Employees on both sides are internal and external communications channels, despite any caution you may give them.

If you’re at a backyard barbecue and ask what’s happening at Company A, the employee will tell you, and it could spread, potentially to a competitor. You have to treat employees as an external communication channel. You also want to have a powerful, consistent and coherent story shared formally and officially through your channels, and have a distinct look and feel, providing it is ideologically consistent.

What is the worst possible mistake you could make?

Overselling the acquirer.

Talking about how great and nice they are in the absence of any tangible policies, principles and intentions. If you create an inconsistency about the acquirer, you will have an extremely difficult problem on your hands.

What are your tips for success?

Really getting to know the organization.

Qualitative interviews, getting a sense of what people would like the new organization to be, being prepared to listen and being seen as a company that listens.

Being generous towards people who are departing.

You do those things, and you will have a very different atmosphere than when you are trying to make a conquest out of it. Do your ONA, and figure out who not to fire. If you fire one of the 3% that drives 90%, you’ve said goodbye to a big chunk of the value of that merger.

What would be your message to help people understand the value of Internal Communications in M&A situations?

Penny-pinching on internal communications could be the biggest waste of money in the acquisition.

Putting somebody who’s used to doing regular internal communications in charge of an M&A internal comms scenario is like taking somebody from a game of checkers into 3-dimensional chess, because there are a lot of different interactions.

The social dynamic is completely different in an M&A scenario.

Is it better to be honest or to be optimistic?

You can be both. Where you have to be cautious is that one person’s positive can be another person’s negative. If you’re doubling the size of a regional HQ in Amsterdam, that’s great for Amsterdam. It’s not great for someone at the other regional HQ in Paris, because they might assume that Paris doesn’t have much of a future. How you handle this really starts with nailing the people principles. Reduce the ambiguity, give people reassurance, tell them how decisions will be made and treat them well.

With thanks to Tara Sabic.

An earlier version of this article was published on LinkedIn

Insights, Internal Communication Strategy, The Profession

Why quantitative research alone doesn’t tell the whole story: the IC Index and the need for caution

One of the biggest issues with using purely quantitative surveys for insights about communication is that what they don’t tell us can be more pertinent than what they actually say.

The recently-released IC Index report, based on a UK-focused study looking at internal communication, is a case in point. 

It hit the streets this summer with a considerable amount of fanfare.  Conducted by London-based employee research firm Ipsos Karian and Box, involving 3000 respondents and collected with the backing of the Institute of Internal Communication, it purports to provide “a UK-wide employee view of what good communication looks like.”

As such, it is not an insignificant piece of research. But by looking only at employee preferences – and particularly at employee ratings and rankings of desirable channels and tactics,it overlooks or glosses over some crucial issues IC pros need to consider when formulating strategies and assessing priorities. 

Here are some insights that become clear on reading the IC Index report – none of which were included in the report’s own text.

  1. Employee content preferences do not (always) equal strategic priorities

Naturally, employee preferences need to be taken into consideration when formulating internal communication strategies.  

But if internal communication is going to be a function that helps move the business forward, and delivers measurable impact on performance, it needs to help leaders to lead at least as much as it helps followers to follow.  

A look at the top employee-preferred topics by “net demand” (the difference between employees seeking more information on a topic and those desiring less) not surprisingly noted communication about pay and benefits as a runaway favorite, well ahead of second choice “my organization’s strategy and direction.”  

Choices in the bottom half included “external context”, “how my organization is helping customers,” “my organization’s achievements and successes”, “my organization’s purpose and mission,” and “my organization’s values and culture.”  

All of these are items which, in my experience at least, register more highly on leadership’s agenda – and are key to driving alignment both strategically and operationally.

  1. Employee “general” format preferences tell us little about specific needs

In the IC Index, the results appear to show a strong preference for email.  

But this preference reflects responses to the question of “Which of the following do you prefer to to receive general news and updates about or from your employer?” – and where the options are “emails”, “1-2-1s with my line manager,” “company newsletters,” “team meetings,” and “my colleagues (word of mouth).

I don’t deny the importance of email – indeed, my #WeLeadComms project is sponsored by #Workshop, one of the more innovative email platforms on the market.

But given that this question only probes “general news and updates,” the IC index tells us little about what types of messages employees prefer to come from which channel, and nothing about which channel actually delivers specific types of messages most effectively.  

Also, by focusing on current employee preferences, the IC Index downplays the attractiveness of comprehensive employee communication platforms, as these have still to become fully widespread in the UK.  Indeed, many of the respondents sharing opinions about employee communication platforms have never actually experienced them – thus making their preferences hypothetical at best.

  1. Asking employees if they are clear on the company strategy does not mean they are clear on the company strategy

One of the major flaws in quantitative employee surveys is that, rather than checking genuine understanding of such details as strategies and priorities, they simply ask respondents whether they feel they understand or are clear about strategies and priorities.

The IC Index gives a 57% “positive” rating to the question “my employer has been clear on the organisation’s strategy and business priorities.”  But research done at MIT showed that only 28% of executives and managers executing strategy could list three strategic priorities.  

  1. All employees are not equal – especially when it comes to consuming and sharing content.

There is a lot of emphasis placed in the report on the IC Index’s findings about the amount of time that respondents self-reported that they engaged with “internal comms” content – with the headline for that section being “You have 15 minutes (or less!)”

The actual results are quite a bit more nuanced than that.  The Index says:

25% say “none-hardly any time”

43% say “up to 15 minutes per day”

23% say 15-30 minutes per day 

7% say 30-60 minutes per day

2% say over an hour per day.

Rather than looking at these results from a “you have 15 minutes or less to engage with each employee” perspective, an alternative approach involves recognizing:

  • About 10% of your people engage deeply with your content
  • 25% essentially pick up all of their company information by word of mouth
  • Any gaps in the formal internal communication are likely to be filled with interpretations shared via word-of-mouth

If you buy the interpretation that we need to make the bulk of IC interventions more “snackable” – you also can’t overlook the fact that word of mouth will be the main way employees will get any substance beyond the initial “snack.”

Moreover, the key isn’t to assume every employee takes 15 minutes to engage with their companies’ internal communication and boil everything down so that everyone gets the same pre-digested 15 minutes of content.  

It’s about making sure that the two minutes, fifteen minutes or sixty minutes that they engage with your content actually count.

  1. The IC Index plays on preferences to dangerously downplay word-of-mouth

It does not surprise me that only 9% of index respondents consider word-of-mouth a preferred communication channel, or that 19% say that they rely upon it.  

But unless companies are to suddenly decide to make all employee communication 100% transparent and 100% “snackable”, word-of-mouth and internal influence will continue to play a critical – and largely misunderstood – role in internal communication, particularly in driving the penetration and recall of internal messaging even by those who shy away from engaging with formal internal communication.  

Because effectively influencing internal word of mouth also involves engaging a relatively small number of highly influential “internal influencers”, focusing on improving internal influence can be a highly cost-effective and time-effective approach to sharpening internal communication and increasing alignment.  

But you wouldn’t pick that up from the IC Index.

  1. The “not-so-magificent seven” paints a rosier picture than warranted

I’m not a huge fan of Net Promoter Score (NPS) or its internal version, eNPS.

But given its reliance on the traditional 1-10 sentiment scale, the most attractive feature of the NPS is that it only ascribes genuinely positive feelings to those giving answers of 9-10, while those at 7-8 are considered “passives” at best, and those below 7 are considered negative or “detractors.”

The one-to-five scale used by Trustpilot and TripAdvisor addresses this more visibly. A 3.5 (the equivalent of a 7 in the IC Index) is not considered an “excellent” score when a 4 is considered the norm in all but the most problematic cases. 

Yet the IC Index insists on considering 7s as “excellent” scores in order to paint a favorable picture of the status-quo thinking pushed through the report’s narrative.  

In the section “The big picture looks good”, all of the sectors mentioned achieved “excellent” ratings from at least 50% of respondents.  But, I suspect, those numbers would plunge if 7s were treated as more neutral (or, as they are in less-trusted employee engagement surveys, treated as politely hostile.)  

In closing

I do not deny the value of the IC Index – particularly as a baseline for measuring the changes improved IC technologies and more resilient cultures could bring in the future.  

But it has the potential to become a charter for complacency, particularly when it comes to the crucial role of internal influence and the opportunities presented by improved technology.

Its omissions – and the report’s generally cheerful tone – could lead practitioners to overaccentuate their strategies towards current preferences rather than future opportunities. 

The report also serves as a cautionary example to internal communication pros to consider adding qualitative questions to their own research to help put quantitative findings into a genuinely meaningful context.

Insights, Internal Communication Strategy

How to avoid screwing up internal communication measurement


For many years, measurement has been a source of frustration when it comes to internal communication and organizational alignment.

Embedded analytics and easy online survey questions can be helpful in adding numbers to the internal communication story. But using them without strategic intent and thought makes them a potential trap for internal communication pros.

It’s a trap that can actually limit the power and impact of internal communication measurement activity by emphasizing what’s easier to measure over what’s meaningful to measure.

To avoid this trap, here are some measurement tips that will help your objectives and ambitions drive the process, rather than have it be driven by what’s easier to measure.

• Drive the measurement agenda

Doing that is simple – choose what gets measured, or at least make sure that some of the things that get measured are actionable, and show a direct relationship between your contribution and the organization’s results.

• Don’t benchmark, baseline.

There’s another trap that a lot of organizations fall into – the desire to benchmark performance and attitudes relative to “similar” companies – sector competitors, other large companies based in the same country being popular targets.

A real pitfall of benchmarking is the need to use common questions (or, even a common research vendor) rather than to ask questions that are specific to an organization’s own reality and context.

Baselining is far more important – asking a given question before the organization or its communicators starts take action to address the issue being examined. Good baselining and tracking allows the ability to measure the impact of your involvement over time – and also the impact of specific one-off interventions.

• Use different types of questions and measures 

There are a lot of different data sources available to an enterprising communicator.

Aside from embedded analytics, one can use surveys to address different types of questions: open-ended questions (where participants are given limited guidance about answers), open-ended lists (where participants are asked to supply several different answers), closed-ended questions where participants select the “right” answer, and ranked lists which test alignment in direct way. Add in the ability to monitor enterprise search terms on an ongoing basis – a potent source of information that can be tapped into silently but powerfully.

What to not do.

Don’t ask people what they think they know.

Earlier in my career, when I was working on organizational change programs with certain (nameless) large consultancies, I was stunned by the surveys they used.

They would ask questions like “Have you heard about the change?” and my personal favorite: “Do you understand the change?: • Aside from being non-specific about what “change” they were asking about, these questions asked participants to out themselves as ignorant, stupid or both.

Don’t do this.

Better to ask another type of question and see how close people are to the official explanation of what they are being asked about.

Measurement is an activity that has tremendous potential to support internal communicators in delivering more effectively, and help them prove their value more convincingly to senior leadership and management.

But to do that successfully, communication pros need to avoid the “measurement trap” that easily accessed data with limited relevance can set.

By following these four steps, IC pros can raise their game – and have the words and numbers at hand that demonstrate their impact.

If you want to navigate and find opportunities in the worlds of measurement, strategy, content or messaging in internal communication, start with my measurement masterclass.

Or, if you’d like to talk, send me a note at mike.klein@changingtheterms.com.