There is a dangerous myth abroad: the myth of the happy, smiling motivated employee.
Yes of course, every company has some happy, smiling motivated employees. But in reality most are not that happy or inspired. And - here's the reality - big budget razzamatazz communication programmes can rarely take credit for generating this happiness or motivation. (A majority of US employees believe that companies communicate more honestly with shareholders and customers than they do with employees, for example).
So how can companies truly engage their employees? After years of sometimes painful experiences, leading companies are learning an important lesson. It's the small things that make a difference. The real challenge is to 'sweat the small stuff'.
One of the big myths of employee communication is that employees are most influenced by what the CEO has to say. In reality however, CEOs are so distant from most employee's day-to-day working lives that their messages rarely have an impact. The CEO's message only becomes real when line managers apply it to 'my job'.
In 1997 the South African government launched a service delivery programme called Batho Pele (People First) to both public servants and SA citizens. Although based on good principles, the program was not communicated effectively to public service employees, in terms of how to deliver on both Government and Public expectations and as a result it did not deliver on the promises made. However, in 2003, having realised the shortcomings, the Department of Public Services embarked on an internal training program, that supported an external media campaign to revitalise the service delivery concept of Batho Pele. The aim of the internal programme was to give employees a better understanding of what Batho Pele stood for and what it demanded of them in their daily work. With over 1.2 million employees in Public Service, it will take time for the message to be filtered to everyone but the internal enthusiasm for Batho Pele has clearly begun.
A knock-on challenge: for effective communication managers need clarity, support and training to identify bottlenecks and areas of uncertainty or confusion. That's why leaders in companies like Vodafone, the world's largest cellular operator, commit at least 10% of their time to communicating strategy on the ground.
On the other hand, anything that creates a disconnect in employees' minds is a sure-fire way of undermining progress. Incentive schemes that encourage behaviours which contradict espoused values; actions by top management that belie their brave words; communications that send palpably different messages to different audiences (so that, for example, what's being said inside is out of sync with what's being communicated outside) - are all classic pitfalls.
Also, communication blitzes have an inbuilt drawback: they come to an end. What happens once they've finished? The really hard part of any successful employee engagement program is sustaining it: maintaining the momentum and keeping it fresh not only month after month, but year after year. A hallmark of successful programs is more detail, at greater frequency - stated clearly in the context of strategic goals and followed up to test and ensure employee understanding. It takes time for new ideas to sink in and for new behaviours to become habitual. Employees need to believe in the brand values and live them in their day to day activities - branding from the inside out.
If a key channel is line managers - the focus of every day work - what about the content of the message? It is often thought that words crafted with requisite expertise have the power to move hearts and minds. Sometimes, they do. But in most workplaces, actions usually speak louder than words. Staff are always looking for a reality-check, so it is the leaders who invest time in face-to-face meetings and who help line managers deal with the nitty-gritty that demonstrate their commitment, and get things done. After all, careful listening sends as powerful a message as explaining: there's no stronger proof of commitment than a problem raised and then addressed. Personal recognition - as well as more formal incentive schemes - works at all levels. Being noticed boosts morale and creates 'buzz'.
The best organisations give their employees a good understanding of their strategy and values, making sure all their communications keep on reinforcing a few core, guiding principles. They then show faith in the intelligence and skills of their staff, giving them scope to manage their own roles rather than relying on head office mandate. Initiative-taking is encouraged.
Approaches like these add up to an 'inverted' pyramid, where the flat 'top' of the pyramid is made up of those who interact with customers and everything underneath, including CEO, top managers and support staff, is designed to help these front line staff bring the brand to life.
Companies that follow 'sweat the small stuff' principles are often pleasantly surprised by the results. In 2000 ABSA was ranked 20th in the "Best company to work for" survey. Not content with just a ranking, ABSA understood the value of employees buy-in and focused on improving the areas that had let them down in the first survey. In 2001 ABSA were ranked 7th in the survey. Once again they took the survey results seriously and implemented internal programs and changes, which resulted in them being voted the "Best company to work for in 2002". This achievement was repeated again in 2003, proving that it is essential employees experience the employment value proposition not as a quick fix or marketing hype but rather as a concrete experience.
Sweating the small stuff isn't easy. It requires endless attention to detail, rugged determination and consistency over time. There is no short cut to success. But precisely because it is so hard, the competitive benefits can be huge.
Issues is a free publication, written by Enterprise IG for branding and identity decision makers
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