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Can Internal Communications Help Employee Engagement?

About 10% of people who downloaded 22 Surefire Ways to Boost Employee Engagement said communication was their biggest challenge at work. Also, about 5% of all downloaders are corporate communications types. (We’ve heard from one of them just a short time ago. His biggest challenge was: “So many projects, so little time.”)

The most commonly reported problem for comms people who come to our site is employee engagement. That’s obviously why they’re here. Other popular complaints, in the order of likelihood, are:

  1. Various barriers to communication, including poor technology, silos, being spread geographically, working off-site, and cultural diversity;
  2. Communicating change;
  3. Poor leadership.

In the next few posts, we will take a close look at each specific challenge. For now, let’s step back and think “big picture.”

Communication is often our first line of defense against disengagement. A manager asks: “What can I say to my employees to get them to work better?” Comms people should be able to answer this question better than anyone, right? But look at their own problems.

At the top of the list is… engagement! Internal Communications is asking: “How can I engage employees so that they read and respond to my messages?” Catch 22? Well, I think comms people may have a point.

It’s important to keep in touch with your people. But conversations don’t happen in a vacuum. You need a relationship. You need a sense of common purpose. You need trust. And you need those things first.

Verbal communication by itself is not an engagement tool. Because it can go both ways. It can bring you closer together, and it can tear you farther apart. As they say, anything you say can and will… you know the drill.

Famous linguist Noam Chomsky points out that languages evolved as a system of thought, not a system of communication. Intuitively, we know this to be true, because we always talk to ourselves in our heads. And when someone says something to us, we think he is using the words in the same way that we would use them. But he is using these words to mean what they mean to him when he talks to himself in his head. Same words. Different meaning.

Communication philosophers, like Osmo A. Wiio, warn that anything that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood, misjudged, and taken out of context. This is true, in part, because we honestly miss the point. And in part, because we intentionally twist it. Why do we twist other people’s meaning and put words in their mouths? You know why. Because we have hidden agendas.

Companies and managers are often accused of harboring a hidden agenda. Employees who think this way resist communication from the company by creating a hidden agenda of their own. Their agenda is to thwart the company’s hidden agenda.

As you see, the odds of communicating successfully with your employees are not in your favor, especially when you communicate with words. But once you fully grasp the problem, you can increase your odds.

This business of separate worlds and competing agendas is a serious one. When we manage to establish some common ground, our listening changes and the conversation flows.

There are many ways to find common ground between management and employees. In my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?, I give you 23. However, there is one key to making any of them work.

Let’s think for a moment why we have this problem in the first place. Why working for the same company, in the same line of work, facing the same challenges is not enough of a common ground. Even if the work is hard, it can be a bonding experience, a point of pride, rather than the opposite.

The key is whether or not we feel empowered and supported in our work. Nobody wants to work hard with his hands tied behind his back. Every third response to the Biggest Challenge at Work survey has to do with management “buy-in.” At the extreme, the empowerment conversation turns into: do we need managers at all? And, believe it or not, some companies are experimenting with going flat.

The best-documented example of this is Zappos. In March of 2015, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh announced his company’s move to self-management. He explained his reasons and objectives in a long email. In particular, he said:

“Many organizations today claim to be empowering. But note the painful irony in that statement. If employees need to be empowered, it is because the system’s very design concentrates power at the top and makes people at the lower rungs essentially powerless, unless leaders are generous enough to share some of their power. In self-managing organizations, people are not empowered by the good graces of other people. Empowerment is baked into the very fabric of the organization, into its structure, processes, and practices. Individuals need not fight for power. They simply have it.”

To companies on the leading edge, giving power to the employees is so important that they are willing to step into uncharted territory. However, you don’t need to start there. Tony had built a highly engaged culture within a traditional management hierarchy. And anyone can do the same.

Just remember: talk is cheap. Communicate your intentions with your actions. Keep an eye out for misunderstanding and hidden agendas. Make it safe for people to speak their minds, and don’t settle for anything less than trust and shared purpose.

Then you won’t need to worry so much about what you say to your employees and how to get them to listen.

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If you like communication, you might like my book, because I wrote it to help managers talk to employees (and vice versa.)

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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