THE BLOG

The Growing Importance of Managers in Employee Engagement

03/10/2015 01:44 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Long overlooked, or at least given a lower priority in many companies, internal communications has seen a surge in perceived value in recent years. Names may change -- more and more "internal communications" is being described as "employee engagement" -- but it is clear by whatever description is used, most importantly, there are two significant and desired action items for employees to embrace: developing a sense of shared purpose and passionately following through every day on that sense of purpose.

The More Employees Feel Informed and Engaged, The Better

Researchers have conducted extensive observations of private and public sector organizations and identified a clear correlation between employee engagement and performance, and more importantly between improving engagement and improving performance. This is in line with a business philosophy articulated by Fred Hassan, the transformational leader in the pharmaceutical industry, which is observed more and more in business practices: attitude drives behavior, behavior drives culture, and culture then fosters executional excellence and sustainable high performance. Hassan believes that in addition to business acumen and drive, attitude, behavior and culture are competitive productivity advantages. His philosophy builds on the critical role that employees play in an organization's potential.

Instinctively, this makes sense. Effective employee engagement improves employee performance by helping align employees with company goals. Employees who have a better understanding of the wider corporate picture are better able to understand how their own job fits into the company's business goals. Equally important, the better the company listens to its employees, the better it can align its messaging to the employee audience. A strong internal communications function also helps achieve a consistency of voice that builds trust and credibility, all of which helps foster employee "ownership" of the company's goals.

Today, forward-looking companies more and more see their investment in employee engagement is likely to offer substantial pay-back in terms of commitment and motivation, as well as offering senior management an invaluable source of information for what is the real state of opinion on the shop, factory or office floor. When employees feel connected to an organization and their colleagues, they are likely to be more engaged in their day-to-day activities and contribute to organizational success. According to the IBM 2012 Global CEO Study, companies that outperform their peers are 30 percent more likely to identify openness (through communications) as a key influence within the organization.

The trend toward more employee engagement has been particularly visible since the global economic downturn of the late 2000s as global companies have sought to become more efficient and effective in their operations. Results from the International Association of Business Communicators Research Foundation's second Employee Engagement Survey in 2010, a survey of nearly 900 corporate leaders, directors, managers and employees from around the world make this point clearly. This survey found that senior leaders were utilizing their internal communicators nearly 50 percent more frequently than in the previous year, but companies were engaging with employees significantly more after the economic downturn.

Meeting the Challenges of Employee Engagement

All too often, many people look for some "magic bullet" -- some single miracle tactic -- to overcome challenges in communications. Employee engagement is no exception to this, although there are three overarching elements that are critical to success: content, continuity and conversation.

I. (Appropriate) Content is King.
At its core, however, content in successful internal communications efforts must mean something to each employee. Whether you connect a global strategy and messages to local examples, whether you explain what a global strategy means for the business as a whole and the individual in a local market, or whether you take a "line of sight" approach -- communicating to employees only those parts of a strategy or corporate document that are relevant to them -- it is essential to communicate in terms that will resonate with the individual employee.

Research by the Center for Creative Leadership, points out that in the development of leaders approximately 70 percent comes from personal experience, 20 percent from mentors or other supervisors, and 10 percent from formal (classroom-style) learning. In Internal Communications, this guided the development of the widely-used "70:20:10 Rule" in which communications with employees should be 70 percent of relevance to the individual, 20 percent to their immediate team, and 10 percent to their company.

II. Continuity: It is Never Really "Done"
Advertising research has shown that only after a consumer has heard a receptive commercial message seven times do they even begin to identify the brand with an attribute; that is, with all the other information people receive every day, they have to hear it several times before they would recognize and remember it. In employee engagement, it is not just a matter of repetition, though; it is about continuity over time. Providing clear communications is essential not only for employees to understand and process information, but also for them to believe that the company is committed about its engagement with employees.

Employees need to see a clear commitment from the "C-Suite" to an employee engagement program - one that continues on well past the fanfare of an initial launch. Acceptance often has to overcome negative history. According to the 2013 Culture and Change Management Survey (of more than 2,200 executives, managers and employees around the world) conducted by the Katzenbach Center at Booz & Company, employee skepticism due to past failed efforts was the number one reason for resistance to engagement programs.

III. Conversation: It Must Be a Two-Way Street
Communicating with employees across the company is a two-way process, and best-in-class internal communicators see themselves as both the distributors and recipients of messages. When one thinks about communications and what makes them effective, it is easy to default to the style and format of the message and dissemination. Yet most internal communicators say it is as much about effective listening as it is distribution; many of the newer initiatives in the workplace are designed to allow the workforce to speak and leadership to listen, or at least provide some sort of feedback loop. Not only does listening inform, but it also serves as a basis for determining the effectiveness of communications and being able to make changes to tactics and messages to more effectively engage with employees.

With better information, better business decisions can be made. Employees need to understand the "what" and "why" to be fully engaged. Labor research indicates that well-informed employees are more satisfied, more creative, more productive and more committed.

Overcoming the Challenges of Employee Engagement

The importance of the frontline managers is a factor in the changing dynamic of the workplace. As the workplace shifts from experienced, reliable Baby Boomers to savvy, demanding Gen X, Gen Y and Millennial generation employees who are becoming less hierarchical (and more collaborative) through the explosion inside companies of social media, online communities and employee affinity groups, there is more a need to challenge these new generations (compared to what was often viewed as "cheerleading" before). The new, collaborative communities being seen in the workplace share a distinctive set of values that Paul Adler of University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business refers to as an "ethic of contribution." They want -- and expect -- to be challenged. This ethic of contribution means going above and beyond the normal job performance to deliver a higher discretionary effort. Therefore, the challenge most directly comes from direct-line supervisors.

This excerpt is from a longer essay written by Gail S. Thornton that will be published in a book entitled, "Essays of Employee Communications: New Approaches for New Challenges," edited by Viviane Mansi, Thatiana Cappellano and Bruno Carramenha, in April 2015 by InHouse, a Brazilian publisher.

Follow Gail Thornton on her website: (http://worldviewcomms.com) and on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gailthornt