Can Internal Communications Fix Employee Engagement?

internal comms employee engagement

Ten percent of people who downloaded 22 Surefire Ways to Boost Employee Engagement said communication was their biggest challenge at work. Also, about 5 percent were corporate communications types. (We heard from one of them a short time ago. His biggest challenge was: “So many projects, so little time.”)

The most commonly reported problem for Comms people who come to our site is employee engagement. It’s why they’re here. Other popular complaints, in the order of likelihood, are:

  1. Various barriers to communication, including poor technology, silos, being spread geographically, working off-site, and cultural diversity;
  2. Communicating change;
  3. Poor leadership.

In the next few posts, we will take a closer look at each specific challenge. For now, let’s step back and think “big picture.”

Communication is often our first line of defense against disengagement. A manager asks: “What can I say to my employees to get them to work better?” When the problem is company-wide, it’s the job of Internal Communications to craft and deliver the message. Can they get it done?

Judging by what I’ve heard so far, the answer is—

It depends.

It would be nice if Comms had the technology that brings people together, instead of sending them into hiding. It would help if management had a clue: who wants to be the bearer of bad news? Finally, a big change will always have some people on the defensive, no matter how much you wordsmith the announcement.

But the biggest “if” is employee engagement. Internal Comms is forever asking the question: “How can I get employees to read and respond to my messages?” If these are the same folks you go to for building engagement, you have a bad case of catch-22 on your hands.

So, where do you start?

Keeping in touch with your people is important, but conversations don’t happen in a vacuum. You need a relationship. You need a sense of shared purpose. You need trust. You need those things first.

Verbal communication by itself is not an engagement tool. Because it can go both ways. Words can bring you closer together or tear you farther apart. As they say, anything you say can and will… you know the drill.

Famous linguist Noam Chomsky points out that languages evolved as a system of thought, not a system of communication. Intuitively, we know this to be true because we always talk to ourselves in our heads. And when someone says something to us, we assume he is using the words in the same way we would use them. In reality, however, he is using these words to mean what they mean to him when he talks to himself in his head. Same words. Different meaning.

Communication philosophers, like Osmo A. Wiio, warn that anything that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood, misjudged, and taken out of context. This is true, in part, because we accidentally miss the point and, in part, because we do so intentionally. Why do we twist other people’s meaning and put words in their mouths? You know why. Because we have hidden agendas.

Companies and managers often get accused of harboring ulterior motives. Employees who think this way resist communication from the company by creating a hidden agenda of their own. Their agenda is to thwart the company’s hidden agenda.

On average, your odds of communicating successfully with your employees are not in your favor. But once you grasp the problem, you can do much better than the average company. Your biggest obstacle is this business of separate worlds and competing agendas. When we establish common ground, our listening changes and the conversation flows.

There are many ways to find common ground between management and employees. In Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? I give you twenty-three, but one thing is key to making any of them work.

Let’s think for a moment why we have this problem in the first place. Why is working for the same company and facing the same challenges not enough common ground? Even if the work is hard, it can be a bonding experience, a point of pride, instead of a wedge.

The key is whether we feel empowered and supported in our work. Nobody wants to work hard with his hands tied behind his back. When asked about their biggest challenge at work, many people point to lack of management “buy-in.” At the extreme, the empowerment conversation turns into “Do we need managers at all?” And, believe it or not, some companies are experimenting with going flat.

The best-documented example of this is Zappos. In March 2015, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh announced his company’s move to self-management. He explained his reasons and objectives in a lengthy email. In particular, he said:

“Many organizations today claim to be empowering. But note the painful irony in that statement. If employees need to be empowered, it is because the system’s very design concentrates power at the top and makes people at the lower rungs essentially powerless, unless leaders are generous enough to share some of their power. In self-managing organizations, people are not empowered by the good graces of other people. Empowerment is baked into the very fabric of the organization, into its structure, processes, and practices. Individuals need not fight for power. They simply have it.” 1

Giving power to the employees is so important that companies on the leading edge are willing to step into uncharted territory. But you don’t need to start there. Tony had built a highly engaged culture within a traditional management hierarchy. And anyone can do the same.

Just remember: talk is cheap. Communicate your intentions with your actions. Keep an eye out for misunderstanding and hidden agendas. Make it safe for people to speak their minds and don’t settle for anything less than trust and a shared purpose.

If you like communication, you might like my book, because I wrote it to help managers talk to their employees (and vice versa.)

If you want to make sure your internal communications get read, you might like our software, because it unifies your team and gets them talking.

[1] Zappos Insights. (2015). A Memo From Tony Hsieh. [online] [Accessed 24 May 2018].

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Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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