Use Personal Communication to Boost Engagement

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This article first appeared in Talent Management.

Have you tried myriad employee engagement techniques? An effective one you’ve likely overlooked is improving the personal connection between executives and employees.

A still-uncertain economic environment — which includes repeated downsizing, heavier workloads, smaller raises, less job security and fewer opportunities for advancement — dampens morale, and talent managers find themselves struggling to engage employees.

The October 2011 Gallup Employee Engagement Index showed that 71 percent of American workers are not engaged or, worse still, actively disengaged.

Many talent managers think they’re already pulling every lever to engage employees; however, there’s one that’s vastly underutilized: the personal connection between top executives and employees.

Here are five ways to improve this type of internal communication:

Band together. From the dawn of human history, people facing fear and insecurity have formed tribes to which they often develop unshakable loyalty. Banding together in the face of adversity is hardwired into the human psyche. Deep down, we long to belong. Especially in stressful times like these, employees are genetically predisposed to be engaged.

If a business organization is analogous to a tribe, then executives are its de facto tribal leaders. But rather than personally promoting group identity and shared purpose, executives too often stand distant and aloof. Not enough top leaders set a compelling example for middle managers and front-line supervisors.

Provide a place to meet. “It is the CEO’s duty to be a platform where people can meet to share best practices and learn from each other,” said Daniel Vasella in an interview he contributed to research and consulting firm Healthy Companies’ leadership research while he was CEO of Novartis. Vasella was broadly visible to employees across the pharmaceutical giant, earning trust through open and authentic two-way communication. He then leveraged that trust, pushing his people to do “the slightly impossible.”

Make it personal. Personal, two-way communication is vital. Most employees pay little attention to proxy communications such as those issued by the internal communications department. People recognize that while the message may be issued in the name of a senior leader, it actually comes from staff.

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