“Taken Aback” meets “Shel-shocked”: Debating Selective Engagement

In my return to the blogging ranks after some dormant months, I have noticed how interconnected people in the internal communication space have become, and also how many places there are where professional discussions and debates take place.  So, it came as a surprise when a friend of mine in London sent me a link to a Google-plus share from a leading professional in San Antonio endorsing my Selective Engagement piece I posted some days ago.

Normally, I would have left it at that, but I landed on the share again and clicked onto the comments, and found the following reply from Shel Holtz.

“I was a little taken aback by the post. I’ve never heard anybody suggest that everybody should be treated equally with employee communications. Some companies that don’t approach it strategically may embrace the idea of mass media, which results in everybody getting exactly the same information. But every text, every workshop, every lecture, every article on internal communications talks about audience segmentation, message interpretation to make information meaningful at the level where work people do real work, and addressing differences in employee populations (demographic, hierarchical, etc.). Is this idea of egalitarianism something you’ve actually encountered?”

To be honest, to see this comment about being “taken aback” left me, in turn, a little “Shel-shocked.”

Shel rightly says that those who take internal communication seriously enough to pay attention to mainstream internal communication writing or training would be unlikely to hear any endorsement of a “top-down-one-size-fits-all” way of doing things.

But many of the leaders and opinion-formers who strategic internal communicators must contend with continue to buy that approach.

In my own experience, I have seen and heard this sentiment in a wide variety of settings–a US Government agency and several large companies in Europe.

Here are some of the things I have heard in my recent career that reflect this view:

* “Our engagement scores are low and we need to get everyone on the same page!”

* “Our intranet readership is too low!”

* “We need to ensure that a consistent message is delivered across the company.”

* “We need to verify that the cascades have all taken place.”

* “People need to experience the brand consistently in every encounter with the company and everyone needs to attend the same living the brand seminar.”

Granted, I have not heard these things from professional internal communicators. Instead, I have heard them from people they (or I) have reported to, and I have also heard them from managers and consultants from other disciplines and functions who see internal communication as part of their remit.

Unselective thinking about “employee engagement”, and even internal communication, remains pervasive.  It is hard-wired into employee engagement surveys and into the continuing affection managers have for cascading.  It is also, to a lesser extent, reflected in the ever-popular “provide and pray” approach to introducing social tools, launching them without regard for identifying the people whose participation would deliver the most mutual benefit.

I would posit that unselective thinking is at the root of much of what is dysfunctional about internal communication–rejection of tools, failure of initiatives, woolly measurements, and organisational misalignment.  Getting smarter about who we connect with and how we connect them could make a big difference.