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The Rules of Employee Engagement: Fighting Counterfeits

Jeff Myhre

Jeff Myhre

digital communications can boost employee engagement

The main measure of success in our field is employee engagement; it’s the Holy Grail of the profession. Engaged employees are more productive, and productive employees are able to do things for the top line, bottom line and all the lines in between that can astonish. But most employees are not engaged by most measures.

The difference between actual engagement and optimal engagement is enormous, and the field teems with “solutions.” Of course, if these were truly solutions, two out of every three employees would not be disengaged. The explanation is not that hard to discern. There are some genuine solutions out there, and there are a lot that are counterfeits.

Real Versus Fake Employee Engagement

Like counterfeit currency, these counterfeit solutions look like a real solution, are passed off as real solutions, and unless you look carefully, are often accepted as real solutions. Eventually, though, they don’t deliver the results promised.

Some of it is clearly self-defeating on the face of it. Organizations shoot for transparency when it comes to communications up and down the org chart. Yet, the annual or quarterly employee survey is anonymous. Now, I get it. In the workplace, I don’t think I have ever been 100% candid. Sometimes you hold your tongue out of simple civility (telling Bob he’s an idiot is not productive even if he is). The thought is that people will say things anonymously that they won’t if they have to put their names to it. A secret ballot exists in a democracy for that very reason.

Human Resources strategy meeting

But how does saying something in secret contribute to transparency and better employee communications and internal marketing? Take a look at the comments on some webpages where you don’t have to put your name and phone number next to what you have said. YankeeFan1927 may well say things that are hurtful, counterproductive or simply untrue. You don’t want your company trolled by your own employees.

Real Harmony

So, how do you spot counterfeits and implement the real solutions to the employee engagement conundrum? You need to look at your corporate culture to begin with. We want empowered employees who approach their jobs with creativity and openness. We want people to take responsibility for their work and actions, and we want team spirit.

Judge your engagement and employee communications activities against those objectives. Consider team spirit. In most organizations, some groups are naturally working in opposition to each other. Accounting is trying to keep a lid on expenditures while no marketing department ever said, “don’t increase our budget.” At one level, they are diametrically opposed and that can lead to an erosion of team spirit. But are they really?

Customer-facing and internal marketing need enough to successfully get the products and services out there to generate revenue, and accounting needs marketing to succeed. At the same time, marketing has infinite wants but a finite budget. Both need to be sensitive to the different perspectives that exist about the common purpose.

With that insight, look at your engagement efforts from a new angle. Are you developing employee communications between these not-so-opposed departments? Does one have an appreciation of the challenges faced by the other? An off-site lunch where every other seat is filled by someone from each department is not going to do that. Having joint planning sessions might.

Leadership Facing Forward

It comes back to modeling the behavior you want to see, recruiting ambassadors for it, and making sure that the objective you want to achieve is in harmony with the methods you use to get there.

Some of this is not amenable to new initiatives from HR or anywhere else. Some of it is personality, and you need to account for the fact that people aren’t easily changed. As I said, I have never been 100% candid in the workplace, and frankly, anyone who is probably has an unemployment check in their near future. But open candor is important; the courage needed to take risks is important; and the desire to improve the situation is needed.

Some people are naturally more in line with these traits than others. You can do yourself a huge favor by building this into your hiring practices. It’s much easier to start with people who have these traits in abundance than it is to create them in those who don’t have your traits. Then, make sure that they become part of the team of internal marketing ambassadors that exhibit the behavior you want.

Initiatives Should Support and Further Employee Engagement Interests

As for the current staff who may or may not have those behaviors, you have to make sure that you don’t confuse activity with productivity. There are two questions you need to ask. Does an initiative further the interests of employee engagement? Does it do so in a way that supports engagement? Those are not the same. It is quite easy to do something that furthers engagement in one way while undermining it in another.

Consider the desire for candor and the desire for the courage to take risks. The reason I have never been completely candid is that I often could not afford to lose my job. If I spoke my mind with complete openness, there was a chance that I would get labeled as a trouble-maker which would damage my career prospects. Any move to increase candor has to reduce the risks at the same time, or you are simply creating a different engagement problem.

So let’s go back to that anonymous survey. Anonymity sets the stage for candor; that’s certain. But it is perfectly opaque rather than transparent. Putting names to comments improves transparency but reduces candor as risks increase.

What’s the True Solution?

What’s the solution? Find a different way to get feedback than a survey, anonymous or otherwise. It could well be that the HR professionals in a firm need to rework many of the current activities to make those activities more effective.

In a nutshell, how you communicate is almost as important as what you communicate – which we all knew, but it bears constant repetition.

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