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Good communication can hugely lift employee engagement

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Based on an article in Workforce Week

Communicators hold a powerful position. We can influence the way things are done at work. As a manager or supervisor, we can engage our direct reports in an enlightened way.

As communicators, we can emphasize good practice in employee relations. We can highlight with examples and case studies the benefits that arise from good employee engagement.

Although much of the attention in the dominant US public relations space is on media relations and marketing communication, research shows the reality is that at least half of all PR activity is internal – and therefore it is a crucial area of PR practice.

  • The best way to drive employee engagement is for managers to accentuate the positive in employee performance.

  • The second best engagement approach is to focus performance discussions on employee weaknesses.

  • The worst choice is to give no feedback at all.

These are the overall findings of ‘The Relationship between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes’ report by Gallup Inc. More than 1,000 US employees were interviewed for the report. Gallup segmented management styles into three categories, based on employee perceptions:

  • Managers who focus mostly on employee strengths

  • Managers who focus mostly on employee weaknesses

  • Managers who don’t focus at all on strengths or weaknesses

Approximately 37% of employees said their bosses concentrate on strengths, while 11% said their managers focus solely on negative characteristics. Gallup reported that 25% of employees surveyed fall into an ‘ignored’ category, in which their supervisors address neither strengths nor weaknesses. Around 27% of people did not express strong opinions about their managers either way.

The differing approaches reflect back varying levels of engagement. About 61% of employees in the ‘strengths’ group report being engaged in their jobs. Still, 38% of those workers remain disengaged despite the positive feedback, perhaps because they believe the praise is not sincere, according to Gallup. About 1% of employees whose managers are focused on strengths are considered to be ‘actively disengaged,’ meaning they may act on their job frustration.

By contrast, engagement is considerably lower - around 45% - for employees whose managers focus primarily on negative characteristics. One-third of such workers are disengaged. Most alarming: 22% are considered to be actively disengaged.

The worst engagement scores can be found in the ‘ignored’ category, where only 2% of employees are highly engaged. About 57% report being not engaged and 40% are actively disengaged.

So while emphasizing strengths gives the strongest boost to engagement, even negative feedback is better than no feedback at all, according to Gallup.

“We found it is better for managers to dwell on some aspect of employee performance—even if it is on negatives - than to avoid the matter altogether,” said Jim Harter, a Gallup research scientist and co-author of the report.

Harter says negative feedback “at least lets people know that they matter,” while neglecting them can be far worse.
Organizations with high engagement scores exceed their peers in 9 areas of business performance, including customer loyalty, profits, productivity, quality, turnover and absenteeism. For instance, organizations with the highest engagement scores in Gallup’s database have an 83% chance of achieving above-average business performance. In contrast, organizations at the lowest levels of engagement have a 17% chance.

Why bother to increase employee engagement? Is it just a ‘feel good’ factor? Not according to Gallup, who estimated the cost of lost productivity from disengaged employees within the US workforce at more than $300 billion per year.

The report is based on Gallup’s famous Q12 Index, which asks a dozen questions to identify the presence of the factors that are known to affect engagement:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8. The mission or purpose of my organization makes me feel my job is important.
  9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Engaged employees are fully involved in and enthusiastic about their work, and therefore will act in a way that furthers their organization's interests. Employee engagement is a measure of an employee's emotional attachment to their job, colleagues and organization which greatly influences their willingness to learn and perform at work. Engagement is different from employee satisfaction, motivation and organisational culture; being satisfied doesn’t mean you are necessarily engaged in your role.

What can communicators do to increase employee engagement?

Internal measurement specialist Angela Sinickas states it clearly: ‘the single largest driver of employee engagement is the strength of the communication link between employees and supervisors.’ She says that puts communicators in a critical position to help drive the bottom line.

Internal communication expert Rodney Gray believes the best types of direct communication needed to increase engagement are:

  • Listening at all levels
  • Mostly face-to-face communication (social media can create a conversation)
  • Information kits, packs and guides
  • Upward, two-way communication

He says other ways to strengthen engagement levels are to:

  • Facilitate personal growth for employees through learning opportunities, job rotation and career path opportunities.
  • Develop relationships through involvement and consultation with staff, a healthy culture in which staff are valued and recognised.
  • Develop trust by all staff in leaders who are credible, provide vision, are open and candid, commit time to employees and seek feedback.
  • Encourage change through dealing with employees with respect and dignity (no secrets, no hype), and through often varying the way narratives and other communication describe what success will look like.

Notice how all these actions depend on effective communication.


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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