Employee Engagement


You’ve heard it before: Individuals using social media to hold people and organizations to a higher level of accountability and transparency for perceived injustices—leveraging their network and the power of an engaged community to bring about change.

No dogs allowed...Board of Health...whaddyamean? I just had a bath!!!

An airline passenger with a smart phone Tweets about the fact that he’s been stuck on a tarmac for four hours with little access to food, water and bathrooms.  We’ve heard about companies monitoring Tweets 24/7, and seen how a Tweet in some cases will get you a faster customer service response than calling or even e-mailing—a real-time response for a real-time communication channel. A well-known restaurant chain is shamed by an employee who posts an inappropriate video to You Tube from one of its franchise locations, and a cable company is held accountable when its cable-repair guy falls asleep on a couch in the middle of a customer’s living room and the video goes viral on You Tube.

So it wasn’t much of a stretch to learn that my local coffee shop turned to social media—and the power of an engaged community—when the local Board of Health enforced a customer complaint about the establishment’s policy of allowing leashed dogs inside the shop with their owners. Coffee Labs—a play on coffee-colored labrador retrievers and the kind of laboratory it is for roasting coffee—has always been a dog-friendly place. Customers like me enjoy the friendly atmosphere and wonderful full-bodied coffee. The presence of an occasional dog is a pleasant diversion, and responsible people acting responsibly with their leashed dogs has always been the norm. A sign on the front window clearly indicates that “dogs are allowed” (Snoopy would be proud), and potential patrons bothered by this policy are always welcome to  take their business elsewhere.

Here’s what happened:

  1. Someone complains to the local Board of Health about bringing dogs into Coffee Labs.
  2. The shop owners build a fan page on Facebook called  I want to go back to Coffee Labs Roasters, WOOF!!!!! and let their network know about it.
  3. The network of loyal customers (455 people as of this writing) is understandably outraged and shows their support.
  4. The local television news—as is the custom with media these days—discovers a story breaking on social media (Facebook) and picks it up for coverage on the evening news.
  5. A local attorney learns of the shop’s plight and volunteers to write a possible waiver to allow dogs back in the shop.

Bravo—the power of an engaged community using social media to fight injustice at the grass-roots level. Just a local coffee shop in the suburbs of New York City who wants to run their business as they see fit, not injustice on some grand scale.

But still…think of the possibilities.

The response came in a matter of days; the network came together voluntarily and participated enthusiastically and vigorously—no one is paying them and no one is paying the local attorney. It’s the power of an engaged community using social media to lock arms.

Lessons for corporate communication, employee engagement

What else might be accomplished through social media communication strategy? Are there lessons to be gleaned by those of us in a corporate communication function? How might social media channels be used in your workplace to bring about this level of engagement and discretionary effort? Are there social media intranet communication strategies hidden in this story? Are your employees passionate about a cause—which one(s)? How can you influence the discussion and motivate to action?

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Public relations is counter-intuitive in the sense that it’s a study of what you’re communicating by not communicating. We’re not taught to think this way and to do so seems slightly paranoid.

Here’s a couple of communication principles organizations and senior leaders can put into practice in order to avoid the fallout—the Tiger Woods effect—of not shaping the message before, during and after a crisis.

1/ Don’t wait for a crisis to be transparent in your messaging– Don’t leave things to chance or fool yourself into thinking that those you manage will be satisfied with your less-than-full disclosure. Even when you have nothing substantive to report, you can be transparent about that, and avoid the guessing game that will invariably take place among your staff and just as invariably result in a less than generous construction/interpretation of your silence. Why be transparent when you have nothing to say? Does that seem counter-intuitive to you? Because it allows the folks in your organization to share in the journey, and share the burden: It establishes trust in your leadership. It’s ok to communicate the half picture, if that’s all you know; the point is to make every effort to keep others in the loop.

2/ Get out in front of the message- Communicate and do it as soon as possible. In some cases it may not always be possible to communicate immediately– say, if you are dealing with some sort of shock or trauma associated with the event at hand. Perhaps in the case of Tiger Woods that was the shock of getting caught. No matter — take the essential time needed to work through the shock or grief, then you or your PR person should  jump into the fray and address the situation as honestly and accurately as possible. You don’t want to add scheming and intentional obfuscation to the list of your misdeeds.

3/ Hold a quarterly Town Hall meeting— Dedicated meetings convened with the goal of two-way communication should be held on a quarterly basis regardless of the type of organization you’re in. A simple form can distributed and incorporated into the meeting (not after the meeting) where participants can weigh-in anonymously about what’s going right, what’s going wrong and which corrective actions may be taken. The next meeting date should be scheduled and expectations should be clearly managed–what important milestones will be achieved before the next Town Hall is convened? When something goes wrong it’s too late to communicate. Be open and consensual and communicate purposefully on a quarterly basis or more frequently.

4/ Establish a leadership and/or manager communication plan: I heard one CEO say managers better know how to communicate or they should be fired. Really? Keep your managers updated regularly through two-way communication channels offered by social media. Establish a process to listen to their concerns so they can incorporate your organization’s strategic goals into what they do everyday. Are they concerned only with performance or have you trained managers to partner with those they manage. When managers take the time to explain the value of the employment experience (or volunteering experience for non-profits) they can drive engagement and motivate employees/volunteers in a way and impacts the bottom line. Managers/supervisors are the most important communicators in your organization. Don’t let this channel go to waste. Teach them how to help advance the career goals of employees in addition to bottom-line corporate financial objectives. Aren’t they related anyway? Thoughts?

Photo Credit: Stefano A’s photostream, licensed by Creative Commons.

How do you feel about near-misses? Ok for horseshoes and hand grenades, eh? Well, in part two of our discussion about the cost of failing to keep employees engaged during an economic downturn—the cost of creating corporate zombies—I’d like to discuss one simple premise of employee motivation that applies to our present environment where so much emphasis and demand is placed on innovation:

Without permission to fail employees will never feel secure enough to be truly innovative.

Does this sound like a radical assertion? In the last post (see below) we discussed the fact that employees are the only ones who can innovate us out of this economic stupor. But by perpetuating a corporate culture typified by risk-aversion rather than transparency, of fear rather than trust, companies are cutting themselves off from the very clever and creative employee ideas that will help them survive.

zombie mintsCome again? You say corporate culture should reflect a propensity and willingness to embrace innovations that fail as well as those creative employee endeavors  (to grow the business) that result in success? Are you tipsy or something?

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. A risk-averse culture will never be the fertile soil for creative ideas; an atmosphere of guarded speech and careful interpersonal interaction can never produce real innovation. The tragedy here is the fact that employees are  the untapped resource with the winning ideas who never bring them up because they have never been given permission to fail. Yes, mind the business tactics and make sure everything rolls up to something of strategic importance to the enterprise, senior leaders; but without an ear to the ground—without actively listening to the pipeline of ideas from front-line employees (via two-way communication channels)—corporate strategy will fail.

There’s an outcome that’s just shy of success—it’s called a near-miss. You’re not ok with a near-miss? Glad Einstein didn’t think like you, or he would have given up after the umpteenth failure to invent the light bulb. May I wax pedantic for a moment to point out that Thomas Edison spent several years back in the 1870s experimenting with more than 100 substances, all of them failures, before he found the right filament for the first electric light bulb? 🙂

An interview published this week with Jeff Katzenberg of DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., in a New York Times Leadership Corner feature called The Benefit of a Boot Out The Door underscores this argument.

“In my business (computer-animated feature films) if you stop being creative and innovative, you’re finished,” Katzenberg says.

Rhetorical question from me: Are there really businesses out there where this isn’t true? How many blue chip and legacy-based organizations are trying to innovate in order to survive right now?

Katzenberg concludes: “In the world we live in today, the single most important thing is making people feel secure. It’s a very different era today than it was five or 10 years ago, even two years ago. We’re in a moment in time when people don’t want to take risks, they don’t want to gamble. In my business, you must. If you stop being creative and innovative, you’re finished.”

“In order to strike a balance between organizations who are unwilling to take risks but who must innovate to survive, “the equation works quite simply like this: In order to succeed at the high-end of the movie business, you must be original and unique. Now if you were putting an equation up on the white board and you wrote “original + unique = what?” Then the answer would have to be “risky.” And if you said, “risky = what?” The answer would be “some failure.” It has to, by definition, just sort of in the most fundamental way.”

“If you don’t make failure acceptable, you can’t have original and unique. And so in a world today that punishes, brutally punishes, any of us for failure, it’s the single most important quality that I think we work so hard to provide for our 2,000 employees, the understanding that they are expected to take risks.”

Are we on to something here? What say you?

Photo credit:  Archie McPhee Seattle’s photostream, licensed by Creative Commons.

Is anyone talking about this? In looking for ways to innovate and grow their business right now have any companies thought of placing a renewed emphasis on employee engagement? Along with profit-to-earning-ratio calculations and the slashing of expenses are businesses calculating the total cost of owning a disengaged talent pool?

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The opportunity cost of failing to keep employees engaged—the cost of creating corporate zombies in a down economy—is considerable, precisely because employees are the only ones who can innovate us out of this mess. Keeping employees motivated and engaged makes all the difference in the world—especially now.

I’ve spent most of my career in corporate communications—in what’s considered the corporate staffing side of the equation—but I’ve also had the opportunity to work in the trenches, on the business side in marketing and sales. I know what it means to beat the pavement for a sale, and what it means to cold call—to pick up that telephone (or other channel used to drive sales) for yet another time—to muster the courage to be “appropriately persistent” one more time with that business prospect you’ve been working with for six months or a year.

You have your own inner fire and yes, motivation comes from within. But believe me, an employee’s understanding of particular company’s culture can become a game-changer in this situation: Are senior leaders trying to be transparent? Are they committed to using two-way communication channels in order to incorporate my feedback into their decision-making? Does the company recognize the value of my contribution to the bottom line? Is there a career-path for me here, developmental opportunities, work-life balance? When it comes to capturing the discretionary effort of employees—that extra something—company culture and the perceived value of the employee deal can make the difference between success and failure.

Yet many organizations have been slow to capitalize on the inherent value of interpersonal connection. We can’t control some of the mediums (social media) that enable two-way communication and doesn’t networking serve a purely social function, senior leaders reason, one that is best left outside the workplace doors?

The reasoning of social media consultants like Stacy Wilson www.eloquor.com/blog has not yet made an  impression on these senior leaders:

“Even the term ‘social media’ is driving fear. Along with podcast, blog, wiki, etc., these are just different technologies that can serve as different communication channels to enable culture change—they can drive collaboration and dialog more effectively than traditional channels,” says Wilson.

“If we work with senior leaders to help them understand the business value and benefit of conversation, dialog and collaboration, the fear melts away,” Wilson adds, noting that social technologies drive innovation:

“Innovation is an important business driver because it takes a lot of ideas in the pipeline to come up with that one marketable/patentable idea; conversation and dialog help to generate a constant stream of ideas.”

We have not yet begun to fight, said that lion of perseverance, Winston Churchill, as he faced down the adversities of World War II. For our purposes, the company’s battle to be profitable is over before the first shot is fired if it lacks one indispensable asset; namely, engaged employees.

During a recent business visit to a Fortune 500 company in the Midwest I learned that retention is no longer part of the vocabulary of many talent management professionals. Since jobs are scarce, they reasoned, where were employees going to go? What’s more appalling is that many employees are told that the elimination of their job is a distinct possibility or that it’s being “explored,” yet no voluntary package or reasonable severance is made available so they can at least move on with dignity. So they remain at their jobs, plodding on like corporate zombies, waiting for the axe to fall.

Much of this sentiment was reflected in a recent Business Week story by Krisztina Holly and Jim Clifton, which suggested that improving employee engagement is the surest way to turn the economy around. Less than 30% of corporate workers really care about their jobs—and nearly 20% actually want to undermine their co-workers, according to the Gallup study, yet boosting engagement just a tenth of a point can have a huge impact on a company’s sales, they reason. Is this not common sense?

For more on this you can check out this presentation from Netflix, which is a great example of a company that understands culture and employee engagement: Seven Aspects of Culture.

Let me know what you think.

Photo Credit: Archie McPhee Seattle’s Photostream, Licensed under Creative Commons.

The “gift” of feedback is not only something discussed by a manager and his or her direct report during the performance management process, as important as that is. But I also believe it’s also the foundation for two-way communication at that can lead to real consensual decision-making at an organization.

Understanding the value of feedback has become even more important now, when pulling back the curtain on employee engagement has become an increasingly complex affair, and the changes and challenges facing the communication industry may be unprecedented in their scope and magnitude.

The traditional top-down cascaded messaging pattern of old has lost traction with employees, and thorny new issues have emerged, such as how to cut through the clutter of too much information, and how to make sure messages connect with an employee audience that has vastly differing preferences when it comes to how they want to receive communication –- differences based on age and demographics, remote or central office workplace locations, or the preponderance of offerings available through next-generation communication platforms like social networking and Web 2.0.

How should corporate communicators respond? Most Baby Boomer employees are comfortable with e-mail, yet many Millennials and Gen-Xers want to communicate exclusively through collaborative social networking channels (as they do outside of work) or through instant messaging or texting, while some older Traditional employees may not be connected electronically at all –- voicemail be the only viable option.

The challenges and choices facing communicators are legion, yet the priority to engage employees has never been higher; namely, the priority to acquire and retain key talent and avoid the steep cost of rehiring and retraining, the priority to inspire and motivate employees to achieve new levels of productivity, and the vital role of communication in helping employees to make an emotional connection with what they do at work and their value to the organization.

Incorporating feedback into the decision-making process is perhaps the most essential thing organizations can do to build engagement. This is simply a good management practice. John Donahoe, chief executive of eBay since March 2008, understands the value of feedback to gauge his own performance, and he understands the value of feedback to lead others toward better performance. In The New York Times Corner Office column last Sunday he said he relished the time spent at a talent firm (Bain & Company) because he received rigorous performance reviews every six months or so.

Sounds counter-intuitive, eh? He must have loved long division and studying for exams back in school too, right? No, he’s not insane– Mr. Donahoe is on to something: he understands the vital importance of feedback.

“In many ways it was liberating, because I realized feedback is a gift. I try to do the same for the people around me, and give them open, objective feedback offered in a constructive way,” he said.

“Then each person says, Here’s what I’m good at, here’s where my development priorities are and where I want to get better.”

The rules of engagement have changed, and continue to move swiftly in the direction of a two-way communication model that values employee feedback, consensual decision-making and transparency at senior levels of the organization. Companies need a plan to restore trust throughout the organization and they need to have an effective two-way communication model in place. Do senior leaders at your organization understand the vital connection between employee communication and a company’s financial performance?  Start with a methodical and ongoing evaluation of your communication practices. Are senior leaders listening? Does the harvesting of employee feedback result in real consensual decision-making? Are front-line employees being managed in a way that inspires engagement and drives them in the direction of work they are good at — work which uses their natural talents?

Where and when does change begin? Embracing the gift of employee feedback is a fine place to start — it leads to the kind of change in management style espoused by business leaders like John Donahoe at eBay. Only when organizations embrace the gift of employee feedback can they experience the kind of incremental and ongoing change that leads to increased employee engagement, retention and productivity, while making the best use of limited financial resources in a challenging economic environment.