Sunday, August 9, 2009

Employee or Leadership Engagement

The article below was first published Aug. 3 at

The other day, a group of us at work were having a conference call with a representative of an industry association. The association is actually useful—a collection of companies big and small who talk with each other about communications, sponsor studies, get consulting help and learn how others tackle similar problems. This organization also says it facilitates the sharing of best practices and key learnings, but I’ll forgive them for that.

One of our number asked the rep if there was any one question she was hearing from senior executives of member companies, any particular issue or concern or desire for information. In other words, “What’s on the minds of American corporate leaders about communication right now?” My first thought was that her answer would be “social media,” the current hot button in corporate communications. But I was wrong.

She said that there was one question that was coming up over and over again. And the question was—how do we get employees engaged?

The rep said this was the single biggest issue for member companies of all sizes, and some were beginning to sound desperate. They had tried everything – town halls, small group meetings with executives, special newsletters, one-on-one conversations and internal blogs. They had “segmented their target audiences” and “refined their key messages”—but nothing was working.

So I asked her a question: how many of those companies had recently been or were currently going through layoffs?

“Oh, about 80 percent of them,” she said.

So here’s a learning we can all share, and maybe one day it will become a best practice: When an organization is laying people off, employee engagement—with the business, with customers, with suppliers, with market conditions and competitors—is going to suffer, and for a considerable period of time.

Employees won’t get engaged until they know the answers to four questions:

  1. Do I have a job?
  2. Do the people I work with have jobs?
  3. Is my organization changing, and what does the new one look like? And
  4. Will I be expected to do significantly more work because there are fewer people?

Once those questions are answered and understood, then, and only then, can an organization realistically begin to entertain ideas of employee engagement.

When there are layoffs, answering those questions can take months, if not longer.

A more interesting question to me is, how could senior executives at so many companies not know this?

After the conference call, a few of us talked about it. And there is at least one answer.

At many organizations, leadership defines “interacting with employees” as town hall meetings, email broadcasts, and maybe a video or two. When leaders of such an organization decide they must lay off people, whatever the reason might be (even substantive ones), they make the decision and then move on. Their thinking is often six months to a year down the road. They decide to lay people off, and assign Human Resources and people managers to implement the decision. For the leaders, it’s a done deal and time to think about everything else they need to do. (It’s also unpleasant and often messy.)

The affected employees, on the other hand, are at the very beginning of the process. Sometimes it’s quick. Usually it takes at least weeks, but more often months. So if your own individual status with your employer is unclear, and you could lose your job, you’ll be less prone to take risks, create new programs, suggest changes or innovations that could save money, or volunteer for anything. Why should you? In fact, there’s an argument to be made that it would be irrational for employees to do anything else except hunker down and wait it out. Or find another job elsewhere, if that’s an option.

So there’s the rub. Employees are in the here and now. Leadership is in the future, and mystified about why employees aren’t engaged. If leadership gets addicted to layoffs as a routine form of cost savings, the problem will never disappear.

The solution lies with leadership engaging with employees in the here and now. Routinely. Walking around. Talking. Drawing people into conversation. Challenging people. Not letting HR be your conduit for feedback. Listening.

Leaders engage first. Ask Jesus.


L.L. Barkat said...

Very interesting.

My father used to run a mid-sized company, and I tell you, I was always impressed with how he handled economic downturns. HE and HIS PARTNERS took the first pay freezes, then pay cuts if necessary, then they did the same for others only if it really had to happen. Layoffs were a last, last, last resort. I respected that a great deal.

Glynn said...

That's the difference between leadership and management.