We’re all engaged – except the boss

Are chief executives obstacles to employee engagement?

February 19, 2014

Many of us in internal comms have faith in the work of David MacLeod and the Engage for Success movement.

That means, broadly speaking, we have faith in the suggestion that two in every three British workers are not engaged. And it also means we have faith in the idea that engaging them could add £26 billion to our nation’s gross domestic product.

High engagement appears to us to be “a win-win situation”. So who’s holding things up?

The answer is not Bob Crow or militant Trotskyite trade unionists. And don’t think for one moment that British workers are inherently cynical about their jobs.

Too often, it lies in the boardroom. Many of our senior executives simply do not get it.

The crux of their challenge is in the three words that underpin engagement and internal communication: Walk the talk.

In business, employee engagement is a lifestyle, not a project. And to many bosses, that’s a real problem.

On the surface, we are witnessing a wave of board-level buy-in. Scan the FTSE top 250’s websites and the platitudes are positive:

• “Our people are our most precious asset.”

• “We strive to create a great place to work.”

• “We empower our employees and truly harness their ideas and energy.”

• “Diversity and inclusion help us build a culture that is healthier and more competitive.”

But the reality is often different. And research by Ashridge Business School reveals that the egos and abilities of Britain’s bosses are a significant cause.

In IC, I think it is far to say, we already knew that.

For while most CEOs and senior leaders give engagement pride of place in their business strategy, a quick poll of IC practitioners tells a different tale.

• “The CEO doesn’t like talking with people/isn’t good on camera/isn’t happy to walk the floor.”

• “She’s too busy to sign off the monthly magazine.”

• “He doesn’t like his photo, we’ll have to hold fire.”

• “We don’t want to open the floodgates to awkward questions.”

• “Some things are too sensitive/worrying to air in public.”

• “Results come first – the fluffy stuff will have to wait.”

Ashridge identifies the three big issues as capability; personality; and out-dated leadership models.

The underlying challenge may be generational – Baby Boomer bosses who lack the confidence, openness and humility that engagement demands, and that their increasingly Gen Y workforce now expects.

If that is the case, time may resolve the problem. But much too slowly.

A boardroom cull is not the answer – mass premature retirement would see a huge loss of valuable talent and experience.

The answer is to make employee engagement a competitive measure. To start regarding it as a bellwether of company health.

For when it becomes a KPI in the annual report, measured against an accepted benchmark, shareholders and stakeholders will start to compare and contrast.

The connection between engagement and performance will become blindingly obvious.

And the days when it was ok for a CEO to “not like talking to people”, or to be “too busy” to take communication seriously, will, like smoking in the staff canteen, be quickly consigned to history.