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It sounds simple enough: employee engagement is achieved through listening and communicating with clarity and authenticity. Strange then that many organisations fall short when trying to achieve this and seriously struggle with an almost institutionalised disconnect between employees and senior management.

Cutting through the politics of a business can be one of the hardest challenges, particularly when seeking to drive change. Dan Londero, Chief Sales Officer at Reed Exhibitions, says: “My personal approach when leading change initiatives is to personally meet with as many staff as I possibly can as a point of priority. The staff in a business know what is going on and often can tell you what isn’t right. By involving our staff and genuinely listening, I find that they later engage in the steps that need to follow.”

Instead of this, executives fall into the trap of taking on a ‘thou shalt’ style of leadership. Gwen Ventris, the former COO of AEA Technology, says: “Executive teams can go wrong when the decision-making process becomes too separated from employee expectations and belief systems. It creates a trust gap between what is said and what is actually done; employees can become alienated if they conclude that management is making decisions in its own interests without taking account of the views of people within the business.”

Another common mistake is to repeat clichés about ‘brave new directions’ and priorities for the business. Rudi Kindts, a Criticaleye Associate and former HR Director for British American Tobacco, explains: “Many times I hear leaders saying that 'we are in new territory and we need a major mind shift,' whilst at the same time pushing forward with the same old and failing leadership practices.”

This is where the question of ‘authenticity’ takes on meaning. Employees want to see consistency, whereby words are followed by actions. David Plumb, General Manager of Enterprise for O2, says: “It’s about good line managers taking the time to understand what’s important and what motivates each individual employee, then thinking about creating that 'win-win' where the employee gets that motivation and the business gets its delivery, creating a virtuous circle. That’s why employee engagement is so powerful.”

Crowd sourcing

Unless due care has been taken to engage effectively, cracks within a company culture can be brutally exposed when change needs to be implemented. Gary Browning, Chief Executive of HR consultancy Penna, reveals that when he took the hotseat in 2005 a number of reforms were called for which required a rounded approach. “[We] invested heavily in engagement by building a strong internal communications strategy, including regular roadshows, getting around the regional offices, conducting monthly calls with managers and giving key messages on a one-to-one basis,” he says.

The 'key messages' have to be integrated into the organisation. Gwen states that “it is critical… for senior management to understand and effectively [oversee] their management teams to ensure they are active in their support and act and communicate with their people accordingly”.

Any perceived cynicism or discontent among those expected to endorse changes will spell disaster. “It’s very important people get the message from their line manager, not just from the chief executive, so we put in place channels for that to happen,” says Gary, adding that when introducing changes the management were put through a programme to enhance their communication and basic coaching skills.

Although there are going to be times when a consultative approach won’t be appropriate, boards should be aware of how information is being disseminated through the organisation and put measures in place which allow for feedback. It comes back to the trinity of strategy, vision and culture and taking the time to figure out what this means in practice for a business and the people who work there.

Matthew Dearden, CEO of advertising company Clear Channel, says: “To me, internal communication is critical as tone and culture come from the top and people buy into that. If little time is spent on working out what you want to stand for as a company and the kind of behaviour you wish to see from your employees, it can be enormously damaging… With a clear, consistent voice using the right channels, internal communication can be an engine for any company driving commitment, change and individual behaviour.”

According to Nick Helsby, Managing Director of executive search firm Watson Helsby, the value to be gained from well-considered and structured interaction with employees needs to be a higher priority for boards. He argues that "it is time for a fundamental rethink of internal comms, its value propositions, what it should deliver and how it is organised and resourced”.

One of the reasons for this may be around ownership and responsibility for who really drives the engagement agenda. Laura Haynes, Chairman of brand and communications agency Appetite, says: “Executive teams go wrong by missing the opportunity of co-opting and engaging at an early stage and throughout the process, putting a distance between the boardroom and shop floor where it need not exist.”

For some leaders, it may be time to dispense with a traditional, overly hierarchical view of a business if they do want to achieve the desired strategic results. Martin Balaam, CEO of IT company Jigsaw 24, says: “There are a disproportionate amount of organisations where energy is spent communicating downwards compared to listening to what the team on the ground, the one nearest the customers, have to say.

“Executive teams would do well to think about what they are there to do - are they really the ones who know what is going on at the coal face? Do they really understand the feelings of the organisation – if they started to think of themselves as being there to listen and to react to the feedback coming from customers, employees and suppliers, then they would be starting to really care about the customer experience.”

Some may dismiss this as touchy/feely but those who underestimate employee engagement do so at their peril, especially when major changes have to be made and suddenly senior management are calling out for all employees to pull in the same direction.

If you haven’t earned the necessary trust and respect, what level of commitment can you really expect?

Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues raised here.

I hope to see you soon.