Several thoughts have occurred to me.

I keep blogging about how businesses get employee engagement wrong but I haven’t explained how to get it right.

Inversely, I’ve provided pointers: but the right way to engage employees isn’t doing the exact opposite of what is wrong.

Sometimes, doing it right is at right angles to the wrong way. So I do need to be explicit.

Then there are two theories that I want to share.

The first was on how branding was invented to lend a human face to mass production.

It’s important that no one thought perhaps the best solution would be to resolve how to express the human purpose of mass production. The world over, the best solution appeared to be to invent an appealing stamp for it.

The next is about how silly businesses can appear on Facebook, because they speak in the language of marketing in an environment where people want to connect as people.

So what’s the link to employee engagement? The current approach to engaging employees (create employee brands, lots of internal communications, software systems to automate mass processes) is like using branding as a solution to a fundamental problem of industrialisation – dehumanisation. It deflects but doesn’t address the core problem.

In the case of employee engagement, it’s that employees don’t really trust employers and managers. There are too many secrets, hierarchies, too much spin.

In fact, compare the archetypal communications culture of most businesses to a political system and it most resembles a dictatorship. It appears benevolent, but employees are silenced, rehearsed to repeat company propaganda. Punishment for non-compliance is tough. There are official channels for opposition but you need to use these very wisely. Actually speaking your mind against the corporate line can get you into trouble or at the very least brand you as a ‘troublemaker’.

Now unless you change this culture,all the internal comms in the world isn’t going to truly engage employees. Simply because people won’t believe what you’re saying.

A branding consultant once said to me that branding is 1% inspiration and 99% alignment. Now I actually think a lot of business leadership is a bit like that. A tiny amount of fairy dust and an awful lot of rules, regulations, systems and processes to get people to toe the line.

So what should companies be doing to engage employees?

Be clear about why your business matters and deserves to exist.

I find most organisations really struggle with this one. For a long time they’ve got by with ‘we exist to deliver shareholder value’ No wonder then that most employees in organisations who see this as their purpose see their own purpose within it as making money too. And then leave when they hit a ceiling or get a better offer elsewhere.

How do you figure out why?

All entrepreneurs start off with ideals. Yes they want to make money, but that’s to prove they’re right. I’ll bet Steve Jobs wanted to ‘put a ding in the universe’ when Apple was run out of his garage.

These values have often receded into the shadows but will lurk in the underlying fabric of the organisation, faint but the only vital pulse.

Often, businesses try to make WHAT look like WHY – so, the reason we exist is to create the best widgets this side of Watford. But I’m afraid that just doesn’t work. Who cares?

You need to reconnect to your fundamental WHY to engage employees. Go back through your history. Examine how you’ve made a difference. What wouldn’t have existed if you hadn’t existed? What is the historical context that made your business relevant and important? It’s very rarely what you do.

This will be more powerful than any five year business plan, or quarterly targets.

It will give people a reason to get up in the morning and work for you.

Be transparent about how you achieve this purpose.

A business is a machine for making money. You put a pound of investment into the slot at one end and by making something and selling something, that machine will generate several pounds in return.

That money then gets divided up amongst stakeholders. Some of it goes back to the investors, some to employees, some to suppliers, some as philanthropy to good causes and communities. It generally all gets spent.

Now this is where the board is focused, and especially the CEO. Return on capital invested. That’s how CEOs get their rewards.

But how this machine works to create excess value for different groups of stakeholders – and then how that value gets distributed – is rarely discussed.

And how that value is distributed between the stakeholders is also not discussed.

Now imagine if an employee decided that he or she wanted to make that machine even better. So that instead of returning just £9 (say) for every £1 invested, it returned £10. How would that extra £1 be distributed? Are there rules? Generally – no. So most employees think that ‘THEY’ get all the money. What’s the point in making more?

Communicate effectively

Sounds so simple doesn’t it? Compare how most companies tell their story and engage with people and you’d think robots were randomly associating jargon.

Look at the stories and language which get our undivided attention, in the evening when  we connect with friends, watch television, read books, blogs and Facebook pages and it’s a world apart.

If you want to get somebody’s attention, talk to them in a way that grasps the imagination.

Talk to them like people. Tell them why they’re there. Tell them how it works. Be clear about how they will benefit.

And tell the truth.

If this sounds too far-fetched then check out this. It’s a pretty good approach too.