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Engagement depends on communication and trust between leaders and employees

November 5, 2010

A recent research report on the subject of employee engagement makes some very good points.

Originating from one better known management institutes, it argues that to keep people engaged during times of change, certain ingredients are essential. Foremost among them is a high level of trust between leaders and employees and a sense among the latter that they have some kind of personal connection with those same leaders. At the same time there needs to be considerable effort invested in communicating the vision and direction which underlies the change.

This analysis is spot on.

It confirms precisely what we also find on a very regular basis. Within the last month, for example, we reported back to a client with whom we have worked for several years, on the results of an engagement survey. This was hot on the heels of a major reorganisation which had been designed and executed in a short period after a new CEO took up his post.  

Levels of engagement had fallen dramatically in the year since we had last worked with them. To the point where 60% of employees did not wish to be with the company in a year's time. Confidence in corporate leadership was at an all time low.

This in a business which only twelve months before had achieved extremely high levels of engagement, trust and confidence with organisational leaders. Why?

The data (and the comments of employees) indicated a number of influential factors.

For example the organisational culture had in the past been strongly influenced by its previous CEO, who had been highly people-orientated. The new incumbent had a very different, extremely commercial focus. Although clearly a great advantage to the business this meant that organisational style and processes had to change significantly and employees were expected to adapt very rapidly. Many of them had not and were unwilling to do so - many could not understand the thinking behind the new vision.

Against this background, the new CEO had brought in his changes before establishing a sufficiently personal, communicative connection with either employees at large or, even, the executive team. Aside from its merits, the change programme had been devised and implemented at arms length from those most affected. It had been communicated intensively but impersonally. And the communication programme faded after its initial phase, leaving people uncertain and in some cases confused.

Some existing groups of staff (many of whom had previously been regarded as central to the business) had been left feeling sidelined and undervalued while new teams were created and made to feel superior, as the organisation focused on new markets and products.  

All is not lost, however. Having re-orientated the commercial direction of the business, the engagement survey results have provided a platform on which the CEO can establish a close and trusting relationship with his people.

Doing this will take time and it won't be easy. With hindsight it may possibly have been better to start with building the relationships first. But the lesson has been learned.

The need for employees to be fully engaged is now crystal clear. Without that vital commitment, no change programme can ever succeed. But with people behind it the new plan can and will achieve its objectives.

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