How Can We Engage Employees When We Won’t Talk to Them?

The simple answer—we can’t!

Ceridian recently released their Pulse of Talent Survey. The survey deals with rewards, feedback, and motivation, with regard to generational differences in the workplace. In the category of Communication and Expectations, the survey found that “performance feedback is critical to ensuring job satisfaction and employee retention”.

Unfortunately, the survey also revealed that, in 2012, only 54% of respondents had a formal meeting with their boss to discuss their job performance.

Furthermore, only 10% of the sample was promoted in 2012. Of those promoted, 72% were not told why. Overall, the survey found that only 1 in 2 employees felt valued by their employer, with much of this perception being attributable to lack of performance feedback and related communication.

When was the last time you felt fully engaged in any environment where the people responsible for you didn’t talk to you?

Wikimedia Commons, by Antony Stanley, Gloucester, UK

Isn’t it Obvious?

Although ensuring that managers and supervisors have regular, positive interaction with their reports may seem ridiculously obvious, research and anecdotal evidence (Dilbert and Workplace Doctors, for example) suggest that it doesn’t happen enough.

According to KCI Global, in exit interviews, one of the most commonly cited reasons for leaving an employer is “My manager doesn’t talk to me”.

In a benchmark study of 65 high performing teams, one of the questions asked was: When your manager discusses your performance with you, do you spend more time talking about how to build your strengths or how to improve your weaknesses? In the national average response to this question, 40.2% of respondents said “My manager doesn't talk to me about these things”.

Harvard Business professor, Boris Grosyberg, says managers who don’t know how to communicate are sowing the seeds of disaster. He elaborates on the “conversation powered organization” in his book, Talk Inc.  According to Grosyberg, leaders who are effective, “rigorously pursue an agenda that aligns their communication efforts with organisational strategy.”

In Psychology Today, Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D. calls communication the “lifeblood of any workplace” and suggests that many managers under-communicate leading to a lack of trust.

So Start Talking!

If you are looking for the exceptional performance fully engaged employees bring to the game, you need to start talking. Not just chit-chat, although a certain amount of social conversation can help maintain relationships and grease the wheels of communication. Employees are more interested in communication that helps them do the best work they can so they can contribute value to the organization, and then be recognized for that contribution.

The study of positive deviance (i.e. intentional behaviors that significantly depart from the norms of a referent group in honorable ways) offers this caution: “never do anything about me without me.

In other words, connect, interact, and communicate with your employees about anything and everything that impacts them in the workplace.

When, Why and How to Talk:

  • Regularly, initiate work-related and personal conversations to help connect, build a good working relationship and establish trust.
  • As required, explain what is expected of employees in their jobs (likely more often than you think).
  • As early as possible, let employees know when components of their jobs are going to change (including new processes, new responsibilities, new technology, etc.).
  • Frequently, share how their work contributes to the team as well as to organizational objectives and company success (consider incorporating this into regular team meetings).
  • Regularly, provide feedback on performance, including recognition of excellence and coaching around areas of improvement (real-time feedback is best).
  • Periodically reinforce the company vision, mission and values (e.g. tie regular feedback to its impact on the mission and how specific behaviors reflect core values).

Leaderhsip is a Conversation

After interviewing over 150 executives in successful organizations, Boris Grosyberg and his colleague Michael Slind concluded that Leadership is a Conversation, and stated:

“Smart leaders today…engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high. Furthermore, they initiate practices and foster cultural norms that instill a conversational sensibility throughout their organizations. Chief among the benefits of this approach is that it allows a large or growing company to function like a small one. By talking with employees, rather than simply issuing orders, leaders can retain or recapture some of the qualities—operational flexibility, high levels of employee engagement, tight strategic alignment—that enable start-ups to outperform better-established rivals.”

They identified four essential elements to successfully foster this conversation; including

  1. Intimacy: Getting Close (gaining trust, listening well, and getting personal)
  2. Interactivity: Promoting Dialogue
  3. Inclusion: Expanding Employees’ Roles (brand ambassadors, thought leaders, storytellers)
  4. Intentionality: Pursuing an Agenda

What Does it Mean to You?

So what does all this mean? It’s time polish the soft skills. With the recent gravitation toward big-data and analytics as drivers of performance, organizations run the risk (once again), of forgetting to connect and communicate.

In today’s world, these organizations won’t be given the opportunity to correct; but will simply watch the door slam behind their most valued employees as they choose to migrate to companies that know how to engage them in conversation.


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