Communicators hold a powerful position by influencing the way things are done at work. Effective communicators establish a two-way flow of information for employees, and they also influence managers and executives to communicate better, which leads to stronger employee engagement. In fact, good communication, especially from employees’ managers, can hugely lift employee engagement.
Definitions of employee engagement
Employee engagement is a vital workplace concept. There are various definitions of employee engagement, reflecting the complexity of the concept, but a general definition suggested by Engage for Success is:
Employee engagement involves providing the right conditions for all members of an organization to give of their best each day, committed to their organization’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organizational success, with a strengthened sense of their own well-being.
Another often-quoted definition attributed to US consultancy Willis Towers Watson (now WTW) is:
Employee engagement is the extent to which employees put discretionary effort into their work, in the form of extra time, brainpower and energy.
Gallup, Inc., the major US-based international performance-management consultancy considers itself to have the foremost expertise on employee engagement. In 2023, Gallup confirms its definition: “Gallup defines employee engagement as the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace.”
Basically, almost all the definitions show employee engagement comprising these three components:
- physical or behavioral, ie. it affects what people actually do in their roles
- cognitive, ie. it affects how people think about their roles
- emotional, ie. it affects how people feel about their roles.
In essence, this amounts to employees ‘going the extra mile’.
Gallup offers a series of statements that add up to employee engagement when done properly, as below. It can be seen that formal and/or informal communication is involved in all of them.
Employee engagement is based on trust, integrity, two-way commitment and communication between an organization and its employees. It is an approach that increases the chances of business success, contributing to organizational and individual performance, productivity and well-being. It can be measured. It varies from poor to great. It can be nurtured and dramatically increased; it can lost and thrown away.
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 organizational culture; being satisfied doesn’t mean you are necessarily engaged in your role. Effective communication lifts employee engagement.
The HR sector is taking the concept of employee engagement a step further and has started talking about sustainable engagement. Many of today’s employees are geographically dispersed and working longer with fewer resources. Therefore, the argument arises that sustainable engagement is needed for greater productivity and satisfaction. The sustainable engagement model advocated by international consultancy, now known as WTW, comprised the following three key components in 2021:
- Traditional engagement, which is about employee willingness to give discretionary effort.
- Enablement, which depends on the employer supporting productivity and performance in the local work environment.
- Energy, which results from a healthful work environment supporting employees’ physical, social and emotional well-being.
Managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement
Employee engagement is the key to creating good organizational performance. And managers account for 70% of the variance between a good workplace and a mediocre workplace. Gallup has found good employee engagement at the business-unit level leads to vital performance improvements, including customer ratings; higher profitability, productivity and quality (fewer defects); lower turnover; less absenteeism and shrinkage (i.e., theft); and fewer safety incidents. The firm’s extensive studies showed that “When a company raises employee engagement levels consistently across every business unit, everything gets better.”
So how can managers contribute to good employee engagement? As noted above, employee engagement is based on trust, integrity, two-way commitment and communication between an organization and its employees. Two-way internal communication is a vital component in all these factors – and each employee’s manager or supervisor is the key link between the organization and themselves. Unfortunately, two-way communication between bosses and their team members is often poor, which leads to low levels of employee engagement, as shown in the graph below.
Image: Annual employee engagement in the US, world and best-practice organizations – as researched by Gallup.
Sadly, a majority of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees
A 2016 Harvard Business Review article reported on a US online survey of 2,058 people, of whom 1,120 were adults and 616 of the employed people were managers, found that an astonishing total of 69% of the managers said they were often uncomfortable communicating with employees. Around 20% of the managers said they felt uncomfortable delivering the ‘company line’ in a genuine way, eg company direction, change in plans. Also, 20% were uncomfortable in recognizing employee achievements. So, managers are weak at communication. what needs to be done?
1. Leadership communication
Research shows that leadership communication is the top internal communication factor that leads to employee engagement. Internal communication teams have a powerful role in supporting, coaching and reminding leaders of communication’s importance. Line managers especially need robust communication training.
Senior leaders (CEOs, directors and their leadership teams) must be an organization’s best communicators, but they’re usually not. This is especially important, as face-to-face communication about the organization’s vision, strategy and progress is strongly linked to better employee engagement.
These leaders need to set the context for their employees. Every employee comes into the work place with their own context, a mixture of culture, memories, upbringing, experiences, and outlook. Part of the role of a manager is to create a shared vision for the entire team. Team members need to understand the big picture and how they fit in. Team leaders should constantly communicate the “why” behind the business plan: why the plan is important, the role their team plays and the critical role individual employees play.
Managers should communicate with their team members so that they can answer key questions relating to them:
- What’s in it for me?
- Why should I care?
Managers should link what’s happening within the organization to their department in real time, and make a point to talk about how employees’ work leads to the organization’s success.
2. Repeat important messages to your team
One common communication mistake is that bosses see communication as a one-time action. They say things like, “I sent out an email” or “I’ve already told everyone that.”
Research shows that many of us need to hear a message more than once before we get it. Communication isn’t something you can check off a to-do list. Building trust and credibility is about communicating a message consistently across multiple touch points. When employees hear the same message repeated, they’re more likely to take notice, believe it, and most importantly, act on it. But don’t say exactly the same words each time. Vary them a bit so recipients don’t sigh and switch off. Also, vary the channel. Start by saying the message in-person, and then use email and other channels to follow up.
3. Listen to employees
Employee voice is highly correlated to employee engagement, yet it is a mostly untapped resource. Employee voice is when employees believe they have a say, and that it leads to action. Many leaders talk about two-way communication, but they rarely practice it. What can internal communicators do?
They can support and influence leaders to encourage and enable employees to have a voice, both in their day-to-day roles and with bigger business issues (employees are often closer to these issues than managers). Communicators can also provide a platform where employees can share their opinions. Use an informal channel, such as internal social media, or a more formal platform, such as an employee feedback tool. Listen to employees, and share their ideas with the people in influential positions.
Get managers to ask broad, probing, open-ended questions, which allow the listener to take the conversation in a direction they choose, eg:
- Can you help me understand…?
- What do you think should happen with this?
- “What other alternatives did you consider?”
Ask employees for feedback
- Think about in what environment employees would be most comfortable sharing input (feedback channels can be informal or formal).
- Share your motivation for getting feedback.
- Engage people fully and listen to what they have to say.
Follow up on their ideas so they know their thoughts matter. What you do with feedback is important to employees
- Let them know, “I like that idea…how do you think we could do that?”
- If you’re not planning to implement their idea, it’s important to tell them why.
Whether you plan to follow up or not on ideas, show appreciation for their feedback, which lets them know their thoughts are valued.
Further effective communication
Internal communication expert Rodney Gray believes the best types of direct communication, which can achieve the aim that communication can hugely lift employee 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 recognized.
- 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.
Overall, a compelling argument for communication strategies in support of stronger employee engagement.
You can read further in my article about the ways in which communication can hugely lift employee engagement, “Good internal communication leads to stronger employee engagement and therefore better organizational performance.”