Few HR professionals would disagree that encouraging line managers to spend more time talking face to face with their staff, or even just over the phone, is key to a successful employee engagement strategy. In reality, however, despite good intentions, many organisations struggle to achieve this goal.
The challenge grows tougher as technology enables us to continuously improve the way we do things, with the promise of more efficient working, time savings and immediacy of communication. But in today’s work environment – among all the jargon, processes, performance management, key performance indicators, email and social media – the key to employee engagement is to harness the power of authentic, two-way conversation to build relationships, trust and performance at work.
So why is it good to talk? The quality of the manager-employee relationship directly affects an employee’s level of engagement, which 2009’s government-commissioned report Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement presented the unequivocal case for.
This was followed by the Employee Engagement Task Force’s Nailing the evidence report in 2012, which stated that employee engagement impacts positively on levels of absenteeism, retention, levels of innovation, customer service, “positive outcomes in public services” and staff advocacy.
For example, 59% of more engaged employees say that work brings out their most creative ideas, compared with 3% for the less engaged (Gallup, 2007). The CBI found that engaged employees take an average of 2.7 days sick each year versus 6.2 days for the disengaged.
Open lines of communication
High-quality relationships are underpinned by regular and open conversations. So is the solution simply for managers to spend less time typing and more time talking to their staff? Unfortunately not. It is not the frequency of talking that counts. Managers have forgotten how to have meaningful conversations and no longer instinctively know which conversations they really need to have. Reversing this situation is not as daunting as it may seem, as improved engagement can be delivered by line managers focusing on just five conversations.
- Conversation one is about establishing a trusting relationship – this is the cornerstone for all that follows, as trust is both the fuel for and the output of the conversations. It requires a positive intent and for the manager to ask with integrity something such as: “What would you like to know about me that would help us work better together?”
- Second, managers must have a conversation that agrees mutual expectations, based on mutual understanding and dependency. The manager raises the conversation by focusing on mutual aspirations – for example, by saying: “Tell me about what you are seeking to achieve and why, and what expectations you have of me in helping you to achieve it.”
- Third is a conversation about showing genuine appreciation and using the art of appreciative inquiry in order to understand and build on strengths. This is an area that is often neglected at work in favour of a focus on deficiencies. Yet it boosts awareness and confidence as well as nourishing the relationship.
- The fourth conversation is to do with challenging unhelpful behaviour. I find that “non-violent communication” principles can help managers to take ownership for the feedback. Negative behaviour will always need to be addressed, and by articulating the effect that behaviour has on us and our request for a change, we can reduce the “threat” felt by the other person and increase the likelihood of acceptance.
- Finally, there should be a conversation about building for the future. Often headhunters know more about employees than their managers. So a conversation about where the employee wants to be in one to two years in the future is crucial in being able to identify how a manager can meet the employee’s needs while keeping valuable talent in the organisation.
The simplicity of these conversations gives them the potential to transform the quality of relationships. Not reliant on skill, the essential components managers need to employ are a positive intent and mindset and a willingness to be open and brave – with the real benefit being when they become two-way conversations.
HR’s role in creating conversations
As with employee engagement as a whole, HR managers can become key players in getting these five conversations flowing. They can do this by planning out and implementing an approach that may involve:
- working in the business to identify the current state of engagement and the key levers to improve it both strategically and at a department or team level;
- discussing and facilitating with leaders and work groups to create awareness, generate ideas and implement actions;
- providing advice, support, references and contacts to increase understanding, and create conditions for greater employee engagement;
- showing how employee engagement is made up of a number of inter-related factors and by showing how they fit together; and
- proposing simple metrics and review mechanisms to check progress, learn and continuously improve.
In adopting an engagement strategy specifically concerned with improving the frequency, focus and quality of conversations by line managers, HR managers have the opportunity to go beyond the limitations of traditional solutions. Understanding the topic, the drivers and the barriers to implementation are absolutely crucial, but so too is the need to create the environment for line managers to have open, trusting, two-way conversations.