Use Personal Communication to Boost Engagement

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.

Employees want to hear directly from their top leaders and to know them as more than formal authority figures. To engage employees, executives must reach out year-round, keeping employees in the loop, clarifying where the business is going, specifying what each employee can contribute, and demonstrating that they genuinely care about the people they lead. Personal connection is how leaders help people across large organizations feel included and engaged.

Leverage technology. Modern electronic communications platforms have improved the potential for top leaders to maintain continuous personal connection with every employee. Talent managers can deploy secured, private Internet platforms that foster ongoing dialogue between top leaders and the company at large.

Challenge executives. Talent managers who have experimented with traditional approaches, but have not yet seen the employee engagement results they want, should constructively challenge their organization’s top executives to take ownership of engagement and then provide senior leaders a platform that makes it simple and time efficient to stay personally connected with all employees throughout the year.

Eric Sass is executive vice president, strategic communications and learning at Healthy Companies International, a research and consulting firm. Tom Varian is an executive communications adviser with Healthy Companies. They can be reached at