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Employee Engagement Strategies Fall Apart When Communication Falls Short

Traci Cumbay
Traci Cumbay

It’s dark. The building is unfamiliar. How will you find the one light switch in the office?

You’re at the front of a classroom. Forty expectant faces point your way. What were you supposed to teach them, anyway?

Time’s running out. You’re in a car, driving to help a loved one in a desperate medical situation. No map, no navigator. Every turn you try to make takes you to a roadblock.

Bad dreams like these also make fitting metaphors for a failure of communication in the workplace. Planning and organization are great; they’re also in real danger of falling apart if clear communication gets left out of the plan. (And that sure happens a lot.)

Clearly articulating the why behind your actions gives context and meaning to what employees see happening. Which makes those actions a lot easier for people to engage with and authentically support. That kind of investment spills into other areas of their job performance, and it’s essential to helping people find meaning in their work.

If you aren’t communicating, can you really drive change?

Communication becomes especially integral to operations during times of change, but there’s no time when it can be safely overlooked. And anyway, what time in work life isn’t a time of change? Whether change means small shifts like a bumped meeting time or a new break-room policy or big deals like a buyout, change is the only constant.
The issue isn’t always that communication gets overlooked; it’s that it just doesn’t go far enough. In many cases, leaders know that they’ve talked a plan through, point by point, and it starts to feel as if it has been communicated thoroughly even when that communication hasn’t left the executive wing.
Another common mistake is putting out a message and then stopping. How do you know whether it was clear? That it reached every level of your organization without shifting — or worse?

Grow trust by keeping employees in the know

An employee engagement program brings tremendous promise. First, though, it raises a lot of questions. Employees are likely to wonder whether something in particular spurred the action, why they should bother with a survey, whether they can rely on promised confidentiality, and much more.
Communicating your employee engagement strategy effectively creates a virtuous cycle; strong communication within an organization fosters engagement. Making sure employees have a voice enhances their satisfaction, commitment, and loyalty. It builds trust.
You’re more likely to be familiar with the downsides to ineffective communication — from both sides of that equation. Who among us hasn’t known the frustration of feeling like a message isn’t getting through? Or feeling at sea when expectations haven’t been made clear?
Knowing how important communication is during an employee engagement effort, you might also be interested in exactly how not to flub it. SHRM offers an extensive toolkit when you have some time, and for right now, we have some suggestions for A+ communication:

It starts at the top (and keeps going).

Communication is best when it’s an exchange. The objectives of and process for your engagement strategy must be clearly defined and meticulously explained. Then, give employees space to ask questions and provide feedback. Any change that starts to feel like it’s being forced upon a team rather than serving it erodes trust; making sure employees are heard builds trust.

Walking your talk matters.

What you do shows what matters to you. Are you giving enough of your time and energy to the initiative? Saying one thing on Monday and another on Thursday isn’t a good policy for achieving your goals. That should be pretty obvious. Where a lot of leaders accidentally undermine themselves is by letting other priorities take precedence in ways that teams can’t miss. Signaling with your presence and action that engagement efforts matter shows that everyone’s in this together, and that you can be trusted.

So does talking your talk.

Authenticity is always welcome. As it relates to communication, authenticity is especially important. Messages that don’t ring true to the organization’s mission and purpose are unlikely to be accepted. Connect the way you talk about your initiative to what employees know about priorities, values, and stated goals of the organization. Failing to use the language and ideas that you’ve established is likely to induce skepticism and even resistance — dangerous ground to tread when you’re working to improve organizational health. You’ll help ease nerves by speaking in your own voice, in terms that the team is used to hearing about the organization.
If you’re ready to start planning your employee engagement initiative, you’ll find a lot to chew on in our ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Employee Engagement Measurement.

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