Insights

Time for a “War” on “Employee Engagement”

In one of Leandro Herrero’s Daily Messages he sends to his readers and fans, he said in reference to the “War on Talent” that “If it is time for a war, let it be a war on Employee Engagement.”

Indeed. It is about time.

And let this be both a war of words, and a war on words.

Employee Engagement has dozens of definitions.

Many of them directly conflict with each other.

Some spark unreasonable expectations of benefit in the minds of stakeholders. Many create undue burdens on the employees, leaders, managers and consultants who are expected to deliver to them within vague or overly restrictive parameters.

And when anyone attempts to drive Employee Engagement while operating to inconsistent definitions, it’s hard to calculate positive odds for success.

Indeed, there are so many definitions of Employee Engagement that there are multiple categories of them. These include:

OUTCOMES

Shared meaning that is valuable to the future of the organization:

* More cohesive community / internal cooperation

* Increased feedback

* More employee attentiveness to customer concerns or other issues

* Improved design of work plans through co-creation

* Improved retention

PROCESSES

* A more participative approach to negotiations, processes or innovation

ATTITUDES

* Improved employee morale and satisfaction

* Raised levels of commitment to company values and objectives or to a specific project

* Increased motivation and feeling of belonging

OUTPUTS

* Increased attendance and participation levels for events / meetings / online platforms

* Co-created plans

* Employee feedback

MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES

* Involving employees in strategic decision-making

MANAGEMENT BEHAVIOURS

* Listening to employees and taking their suggestions on board

* Recognition

*Conducting employee surveys

MEASUREMENT

* Any measurement measuring any one of more of the above items

The Most Egregious Practice

The most egregious practice in the of the Employee Engagement definition mess is the extent to which many of their authors treat their own definition as “the answer,” and then cite survey research about Employee Engagement which aligns with completely different definitions and methodologies.

This approach makes, inadvertently, naively or cynically, a claim that adopting the author’s approach will address the researcher’s question, when there may be no direct connection between the two. At best, that muddies the waters. At worst, that’s bait and switch.

Winning the war on Employee Engagement

If there is going to be a war on Employee Engagement the first step to victory would be to establish some linguistic integrity in this space.

When an author talks about “increasing discretionary effort” and calls it Employee Engagement, practitioners need to say, “NO, you are talking about increasing discretionary effort.”

When a respected consultant says the answer is to selectively involve employees in governance and strategic decisions and calls it Employee Engagement, we need to say “NO, you are talking about selectively involving employees in governance and strategic decision making.”

When a manager talks about organising a town hall meeting and calls it an Employee Engagement, one needs to say politely “No, this is better described as a town hall meeting because nearly everything these days is called Employee Engagement.

The Fruits of Victory

This is not to say these activities are without benefit, or that they won’t improve Employee Engagement by the standard of one or more definitions.

But one thing that could really improve employee engagement is a more robust vocabulary that would allow us to compare different approaches and their impact on improving specific attitudes, behaviours and bottom-line financials.

Doing so would give organisations more powerful choices in how to assess their needs, select appropriate, efficient and outcome-specific approaches, and execute them effectively.

It is much easier to compare the impact of democratic governance with free employee lunches with amped-up employer branding activities than it is to compare Employee Engagement with Employee Engagement with Employee Engagement.

It is time for a war on Employee Engagement. And that war, ultimately, will be won by changing the terms.

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Writing to Lead/Transcending Self-Censorship

As an internal communicator, it is true that I at my happiest when I am writing.  But what’s less obvious to those who observe me is about when I am writing at my happiest. 

That is when I am pushing the boundaries of self-censorship. 

The fundamental question an internal communicator faces in front of the keyboard is “can I get this approved?”.  At 16:30 on a Friday afternoon, that is a legitimate question, but seeking an affirmative response invariably leads to a descent into deep self-censorship.

Avoidance of confrontation with Above also fuels self-censorship.  Such avoidance may seemingly contribute to enhanced job security, but at the price of diminished self respect, distinctiveness and organisational impact.

Self-censorship is necessary at times, particularly when relationships between communicators and their “line” on specific subjects have already been hammered out.  But we do our organizations no favors when we draft for safety over impact when there is any possibility to get a subject to consider greater boldness.

 At the same time, what we draft has to ring credibly from the mouths of those who speak those words or who approve their distribution on their behalf.

My own default position is clear. I start by asking myself: “What would I say if I were that person, in that situation, pursuing his or her own agenda and seeking maximum odds for success?”

I don’t get everything approved on that basis.

But I have never been yelled at, either for being too outrageous or too timid, in more than 20 years. 

There is some navigating to do with this stance.  It requires real knowledge of the involved content and where possible, empathy with the “speaker.” 

Specifically, it requires a clear delineation between “what I would say in their position” and “what I think they would say if they had the words and confidence to say it”.

It requires confidence– in case one is asked to explain or encourage the use of bolder-than-expected wording.

And, it requires perspective – to always recognize that the subject or speaker has the final say.

But challenging the seductive safety of excessive self-censorship is where the communicator can move from being a stenographer to being a leader.  

Moving leaders beyond the limits of their rhetorical skills, and challenging one’s own estimation of their courage, can move them and their organizations forward.  DoIng so repeatedly and successfully helps one move into a role as a leader oneself. 

Draft with conviction. Accept correction with grace. Savor success, and seek opportunities to help your leaders to lead—and to lead through your words.

 

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Enabling Employee Advocacy: Another View

Over the years, I have published a number of pieces about the emerging role of employees as an external communication channel, and of how internal and external communication are converging.

My Canadian friend and occasional debating partner Judy Gombita takes another view.

In a substantial, well-written post in PR Conversations, Judy highlights a number of legitimate concerns about actively mobilising employees to advocate a company and its products on their own social accounts and in their own communities.

A good point, but…

Judy makes a good point—employee advocacy programmes which are clearly contrived or coerced can be damaging to company relationships  with employees and customers alike.

But there is one massive thing she misses out:  that much employee advocacy is employee-initiated, either as an outcome of natural interactions between an employee and people in their own communities, or a result of an employee’s desire to help the organisation on his or her own time.

Enabling Natural Interactions

Like it or not, employees represent the public face of any organisation, even those with rock-star CEOs or KGB-style message management. They are continually asked about their work, and about their companies’ products, services, cultures and corporate behaviour.

Ensuring that employees are well-prepared for those conversations is hardly contrived or coerced.  Making sure that employees know the necessary facts and the boundaries of organisational messaging is conscientious, and indeed, compassionate.

It is conscientious because, given that hundreds of conversations between employees and the public occur daily, making sure employees understand key company messages can minimise unintentional and costly reputational errors.

It is compassionate because, for those employees who want to “do the right thing”, giving them a working definition of “the right thing” can be a bit useful.

Unleashing Employee Goodwill

In some cases, employee advocacy is employee generated—and actively seeks corporate support.  This is hardly far-fetched:  in the mobile industry, where I currently work, companies are heavily branded and are locked in fierce competition in each country.  Team and company spirit can be very high, and it is not unknown for employees to show their pride and champion their brand in their communities.  Enlightened self-interest is a main driver:  employees are not only proud of their brand identities, but know the positive difference even a small shift in market share can make.

Enabling, not Enforcing

External employee advocacy, when employee-initiated, can be genuine, powerful, mutually enriching and commercially valuable.  It is also an increasingly important element of the corporate communication picture.  While it may be unwise to try to stimulate or incentivise it artificially, it is even more unwise to discourage what is likely to happen anyways, starve it of the information and message guidance it requires, or deprive it of needed organisational support when it is asked for. Employee advocacy should not be enforced, but it should definitely be enabled.

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A Hard Place Between Two Rocks: A future for the Strategic Internal Communicator?

As I pursue a positioning as a “Strategic Internal Communicator” and an advocate for “Strategic Internal Communication”,  I have found two recent conversations quite challenging.

The first, with Liz Guthridge, a long-time co-conspirator and one of the endorsers of my book, “From Lincoln to LinkedIn”, who said “I think Strategic Internal Communication is too small and restrictive of a playing field.  These really are leadership issues (emphasis mine, as it generally is on my own blog) that greatly affect the company’s operations and reputation. Plus, with today’s hyper-connectivity, I think it’s hard for traditional internal communication people to manage these issues.”

The second was with “Silvia”, who recruited me to come back to Europe for a contract a number of years back, and who has since developed a career coaching service.

In an hour-and-a-half analysis of my strengths and  weaknesses that I signed up for while contemplating a return to permanent in-house work, she concluded: “You aren’t an Internal Comms Manager or a Head of Comms.  You are a writer.  You love writing.  You show no evidence of any skill at organizing events or managing a team and that’s a big part of what people want.   On the digital side, you don’t really have the technical piece. And why limit yourself to Internal Comms?  Haven’t you heard that ‘Content is King?’”

Never mind that I have fifteen years of credentials as an activist in the internal comms profession, have written a book on the subject, and am genuinely passionate about what I do.

To put it bluntly, the Strategic Internal Communicator (me, in this case), is in a hard place between two rocks—the immovable commitment of HR folks (and the people who recruit for them) to hiring people for top IC positions on the basis of broad executional and transactional skills rather than deep strategic acumen and fluency, and the tone adopted by some people who have “graduated upwards” from IC who think these are loftier matters to be addressed by souls with mightier positions on the food chain.

But, as George Bernard Shaw once said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” 

At the core, the strategic internal communicator has three main roles in an organisation that is capable of making full use of his or her talents.

The first is to take ownership of the organisation’s strategy and vision and weave it thoroughly into the fabric of conversations in the business—particularly through shaping its words and narrative.

The second is to identify those places where the organisation’s words and action contradict or fall short of its vision and narrative—and either address those gaps rhetorically or challenge the organisation’s leaders to close or transcend them.

The third is to understand where the levers of influence lay in the organisation, and provide those influential people with the information and context required for them to make a real difference.

Event producers, web masters and executive coaches don’t do that.  CEOs don’t do that.  Strategic Internal Communicators do that–and we do a lot of other stuff in order to get the organisational headroom to do that.

Sure, the never-ending drive for corporate efficiency will continue the drive for overspecification of top IC roles.  And the never-ending drive for higher fees and status will continue entice excellent IC pros to drop their tools and migrate ever upward.

The need for organisations to maintain coherence and inspire confidence in an increasingly connected and competitive world means there will always be need for our talents as Strategic Internal Communicators.

But for us to be able to make full use of those talents, we must fight for our place.  Even if it is a hard place and if it means being unreasonable.

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Kill the Jargon? No! Non! Nyet!

As a recent re-entrant to the Internal Communication blogging scene, one of the themes I’ve seen in the recent posts of others has been “Jargon is bad. No jargon.”

Sure, I share the horror of these writers when I see sentences like this:

“We need to MWAC the BVTC in order to maximize the HTPC and optimize the GVUIT.”

But, having worked the last seven years as a Native English communicator in non-Native English countries, there’s one simple fact that anti-jargon fundamentalists overlook: jargon, and acronyms in particular, is often easier for non-native speakers to understand than the fully-fleshed out English term or a seemingly more appealing contraction or substitute.

I learned this several years ago when I was working for a family-owned American multinational in the food, energy, trading and high-fructose-corn syrup (HFCS) space. I was involved in an IT implementation, and was visiting France at the time. What I discovered was that the local team members were using the acronyms with abandon, and that they had no idea what the acronyms meant in English. Rather than being a barrier to communication, use of the acronyms actually facilitated direct communication between the Native and non-Native English speakers.

Turning English into Jargon: The Italian Way

Another take on this approach was the appropriation by an Italian mobile telephone operator of a series of English terms to define its corporate values: “Trust, Fast, Focus, Ambition, and Make It Happen.” Rather than choosing Italian terms and inheriting their associated definitional baggage, choosing the English terms allowed the company to define these values in Italian with much more specificity.

Specificity over Simplicity

What I have found in writing for non-native English speakers is that while simplicity is important, specificity is absolutely crucial, and the use of acronyms and jargon may well make things more rather than less understandable. Putting the focus on specificity when communicating with non-Native speakers—as opposed to making the same assumptions one makes when communicating with Native speakers—changes the terms.

 

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Yet Another Post on Who Should “Own” Internal Communication

As seen by this piece in London’s PR Week, the raging debate over who should “own” internal communication continues to rumble on predictable lines.

“Should it be HR”?

“Should it be comms?”

“What’s best for the ‘employee engagement’ agenda?”

I have no definitive answer. But I do have a strong opinion.

Internal communication should be owned by the leader who has the most motivation and the clearest objectives for its use.

Sure, there’s a lot of concern for the ‘employee engagement’ agenda, and that often falls under HR’s remit.

But ‘employee engagement’ is not the only important item on an organisation’s overall agenda.

And there is considerable dispute about whether “employee engagement” should be an objective for its own sake, or thought of as a collection of behaviors, attitudes and processes and interventions which can be adjusted to aid the fulfillment of specific individual and organisational goals.

As a practitioner, there is nothing like working for a motivated sponsor.

Prestige-wise, it may sound better to report to the CEO. Culturally, perhaps to Comms. Ideologically, perhaps to HR.

But if the real action in your organisation is going on in Finance, Commercial, or IT, and the organisation’s success depends on real engagement, commitment and delivery of the changes in that area, isn’t it better to work for a sponsor who has real skin in the game, and can see IC as a key to his or her success? A sponsor who will fight to give IC the resources, remit and headroom to get the job done?

Aligning Internal Communication towards the highest point of organisational need instead of the most natural organisational fit doesn’t simply change reporting lines. In setting the stage for lower resistance and higher impact, it changes the terms.

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Why Noam Chomsky Is Wrong About Internal Comms

As part of my weekend trawl through my endless facebook feeds, I stumbled upon this quote from Noam Chomsky, posted by an otherwise lucid Dutch friend of mine:

” What kind of freedom is there inside a corporation? They’re totalitarian institutions – you take orders from above and maybe give them to people below you. There’s about as much freedom as under Stalinism.”

― Noam Chomsky

Inside Chomsky’s quote is wrapped all of the conventional wisdom about the nature of internal communication and indeed of organizational life itself.  But in its inaccuracy, it creates a real opening for a fresh perspective.

As the focus of organisations turns toward service and experience, success becomes a function of how an organisation makes the most of employees’ freedom rather than the extent to which it minimises that freedom.

In the West, fewer and fewer employees work on assembly lines or in unskilled labourer roles with a minimum of human contact.  Where there is human contact—with colleagues and with customers—the employee’s freedom to act, or better said, discretion, increases significantly.

At a basic level, employees have the discretion to choose what information they believe and which information sources to trust.  They also can choose which of their peers they socialise with and how they talk about the organisation. Most importantly, they can choose to be rigid or flexible, stiff or welcoming in their interactions with customers.  And, for the most part, they can do so without any legitimate fear of being sent to a Siberian Gulag for a couple of decades.

What does that mean for internal communicators?  Everything.

And what does this realisation change?

Strategically, that means shifting away from attempting to stimulate “discretionary effort” and towards generating more effective use of employee discretion.

Tactically, it means adopting a tone that stops using the “corporate ‘we’” and acknowledges the ability of employees to think and act freely.  It also means providing examples and asking questions that give employees a framework for understanding how using their discretion can deliver mutual benefit to themselves, their customers, their colleagues and the organisation as a whole.

For the most part, internal communicators are doing the right thing tactically.  But focusing on effective discretion instead of discretionary effort represents a paradigm shift.  It moves internal communication away from trying to generate more effort to actively generating better effort.

And, most resolutely, it changes the terms.