Dr. Anton Franckeiss: Why the art of conversation is invaluable for employee engagement and retention

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When it comes to successful employee engagement initiatives, it’s definitely true that talk is cheap. To avoid the risks of creating a disengaged workforce, there’s no better (or more cost-effective) way for organisations to understand, engage and motivate their employees than through good, old fashioned communication. Encouraging line managers to invest time in conversation with their teams, takes nothing beyond a few minutes’ time, yet can have a dramatic effect in countering lost productivity and the costs associated with high employee turnover.

The potential benefits for organisations of making a point of listening to the ‘employee voice’ cannot be over-stated. As a driver of employee engagement; communication has the power to promote better performance and maintain employee retention and well-being. As an added benefit, information flows more freely when people are engaged, harnessing the power of collective innovation and as a result driving the company forward. It also gives employees the reassurance that they are fully aware of organisational activities and management decisions that may affect their jobs.

On the other hand, poor communication acts as a barrier to employee engagement. The ultimate penalty for failing to engender a sense of engagement is a lack of retention – employees choosing to (literally) vote with their feet. Having a disengaged workforce brings immense risks.  If employees are not onboard, as well as productivity losses, organisations can face a drain on their best talent and encounter huge difficulties when embedding organisational change. Innovation and effective collaboration are also silenced, as employees feel reluctant to use their tacit knowledge and skills for the good of the organisation.

Whilst employees’ emotional commitment is now higher than in the unsettling recession era, where the negative emotion of fear over job losses was a factor in sharpening appetite for going the extra mile, engaged employees are still in the minority.  According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace report, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work, with the United States achieving the highest figure in the study at 30%. The alarming headlines resulting from the poll stating that seven out of 10 employees have “checked out” or are “actively disengaged” seem to have helped to generate enough fear in organizations to drive them to go the extra mile in communicating with their employees.

Fortunately this message about the value of effective communication does seem to be getting through. Another recent Gallup poll on the state of the American Workplace found that in 2014, 53% employees felt that they received recognition at work for their achievements, which was up from 48% in 2013.  Satisfaction with their boss or immediate supervisor also rose from 56% to 60% in the same period. As the figures attest, engagement is not so much about driving employees to work harder, but about creating the conditions that will inspire or encourage them to work more effectively and not letting their achievements go unnoticed or unappreciated.

Having the wisdom to share information and invite participation is a key strength of inspiring leaders. Successful leader and advocate of effective communication in business, Richard Branson, has the personal philosophy: “Put your employees first, your customers second and your investors third and, in the end, everyone will be happy.” This holistic approach places how employees feel about their work at the heart of the organisation and recognises that their happiness is key to productivity and remaining engaged with the company’s vision, values and strategy. Moreover, listening to employees’ opinions (both good and bad) provides a vital pulse check for any healthy organization.

Whilst not all leaders have the natural flair to initiate and tap into a stream of conversation, it is a vital skill to develop. The manager who seeks opportunities for conversation, and chances to explore how staff are feeling about their roles, their careers (including whether or not they feel they have one), and about the manager, not only informs themselves about their working environment and their impact – negative or positive – on it, they also send an important message. That message is that the employee has something to offer, is valued and has the potential to develop and evolve. But how many organisations are places where ‘chat’ needs to be stamped out rather than encouraged? Quite a few, but in these subdued organisations, line managers need to realise that only good can come from educating themselves about the mood of the team, their own performance and most importantly what motivates its individuals.

There is a plain, blunt truth to acknowledge about engagement, and that is you engage with employees not ‘at’ them.  Delivering informative messages in a positive tone is much more effective than giving process-based messages in a punitive one. As Yann Cramer, a Global Technology Manager at Shell pointed out: “You do not grow a plant by instructing it to do so, or worse by pulling on it. You do not get people to innovate by tasking them with innovating. You grow a plant by providing the Soil, the Space, the Sun… and letting it happen.” And whilst there’s no evidence to prove that talking to plants is a successful means of nurturing their growth, in business, effective communication certainly sows the seeds of success.

While most of us will be familiar with the idea of ‘careless talk’, those interested in driving up and maintaining engagement might benefit from considering its counterpart, ‘careless silence’. Silence may speak volumes, but the content of those volumes may prove detrimental. Silence sends messages too: that people are not worth communicating with, that a conversation with them would be wasted as they would have no contribution to make, and that their viewpoint, perspective or opinion is of neither interest nor importance.

Obviously, no business wants to have its corridors filled with the buzz of negative conversation or menacing silence. And whilst encouraging easy-flowing conversation with employees can be tricky for some leaders to get the hang of, it’s clear that finding new and innovative approaches to communication that are aimed at achieving both understanding and buy-in from the workforce can’t be undervalued. Not forgetting the fact that through good, old fashioned communication, engagement initiatives need not require enormous resources to have a hugely positive impact.

Dr. Anton Franckeiss, Global Business Development Director and Practice Director, Acuity Global Development

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