Engaged employees? Not without better communication

Companies the world over are hell-bent on “engaging” their employees.

Engaged employees, it seems, are now gold. Enthusiastic and highly motivated, the engaged employee is on the job not only in body but in heart and mind as well.

Clearly, such employees represent a powerful source of competitive advantage, so it’s not surprising that businesses now want them. Problem is, you can’t just go out and buy them. Nor can you transform existing employees simply by promising to pay them more if they produce specific results.

Why not? Because employees become engaged largely due to the way they are treated and managed – by the way they are stimulated to work, not simply by the way they are compensated.

For example, benefit plans, pay-for-performance schemes and annual bonuses have been around for years. And yet many companies in Barbados are still plagued with lack of commitment on the part of employees, lack of trust, strained industrial relations and poor business literacy.

It’s pretty clear that we if want engaged employees it’s our management style that needs fixing.

To be recognized and valued are human needs, same as air and water. And since we spend the better part of our lives on the job, and since what we do hugely influences how we measure our worth, recognition for what we contribute ranks high indeed.

It is degrading – and demoralizing – to have such worth expressed solely in terms of dollars and cents, and to receive no other form of acknowledgement for work well done. How engaging is that?

One of the most powerful ways in which corporate leaders can reward, respect and thereby engage employees is by communicating with them candidly and consistently – sharing what corporate communicators call “the big picture”.

Most employees are genuinely interested in the issues that affect the success of their company. They want to know where the business is going, how it plans to get there and how they can help.  They want to be able to connect their workplace with the marketplace. They want to feel connected to the business and to contribute their ideas.

Problem is, in the command and control environment that remains prevalent in so many companies, such information is seen as “too rich” for employee consumption; it is reserved for senior executives. As a result, information that could boost corporate performance if it were widely shared remains trapped in the board-room.

Starved for relevant information, employees are forced to seek sustenance from the company grapevine, which is always fast but often inaccurate. Or they must make do with a Vision and Mission Statement tacked on to the wall above the receptionist’s head.

Sadly, this situation applies not only to rank and file employees but to middle managers and supervisors as well. How absurd is this? These people are the most powerful communication tools available to corporate leaders.

It has been universally established by study after study that face-to-face communication is the most preferred method among employees for receiving information. And the face they are most likely to see day in day out is that of their immediate supervisor or manager, not a senior executive.

Face-to-face creates opportunities for dialogue: to ask questions, seek clarification and even to offer suggestions on how to solve a pressing problem. It sounds a lot like engagement to me.

But it can’t work if middle management is left out of the information loop and hasn’t been taught the communication skills needed to recognize, reward and motivate people.

When a manager can’t answer employees’ questions and has to say, “I’m just as much in the dark as you”, corporate leaders aren’t doing their jobs. Communication is leadership.

Because of its exclusive approach to information, and the importance it attaches to hierarchy, command and control style management stifles effective corporate communication. And it’s easy to tell the companies where it is still in force.

For a start, business strategies falter for lack of understanding and support. Restructuring and organizational changes are often more threatening than they need to be. Mutual trust is lacking and management frustration is high while employee morale is low.

Good employee communication is not the only ingredient in the recipe for engaged employees. But without it, you are not likely to succeed.

To turn employees on you must first plug them in.

Originally published on Businessbarbados.com