Is management inertia the cause of low employee engagement?

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and is the author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

We were discussing the important role that all managers have in communicating at the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma class on Saturday. Why is it that this always comes up when internal communicators get together? The answer is because we know that without good communication throughout an organisation levels of engagement will remain low or static.

I know there are many examples of great practice in organisations. For example, Vineet Nayar shows how it can be done in his book “Employees First, Customers Second” – an interesting reversal of conventional management wisdom. However, anecdotal stories from the hundreds of students who have studied with us at PR Academy suggest that great practice is the exception.

I know that many managers appreciate how important it is to communicate and by this I don’t mean tell or sell. It’s also encouraging upward feedback and acting on it as well. However, it’s worrying that this is not always recognised as a skill that is equally important as the skill associated with the job itself, nor is it highlighted as much as it should be in the degrees and MBAs provided by Business Schools.

Another reason for the lack of attention to communication and engagement may simply be inertia. This was a key finding in research conducted recently by the Advanced Institute of Management Research (AIM). It seems that managers in the UK are reluctant to pick up and run with promising practices. Apparently, one reason for this is that managers simply struggle to see the need to change at all. If this is the case, then the road to higher levels of employee engagement is going to be a very long one indeed.

On the other hand, as the AIM research also points out, it is too simple to just copy-cat practice from other organisations. We know this by observing the failure of other motor manufacturers to replicate the Toyota Production System. The processes behind Employees First, Customers Second are an example of what the report terms “signature processes”. These are practices that organisations make distinctly their own by adapting them to their own specific context and values. As Nayar acknowledges, his processes are not a simple recipe, it is up to organisations to work out how to apply the thinking in ways that work for them.

At the risk of reducing the complexity of this topic into a simple model, I’ve captured what seem to me to be the fundamentals for management communication at all levels. The model aims to highlight the importance of the breadth of communication from an employee perspective, spanning local issues and concerns through to wider organisational topics. Research suggests that employees are very interested in the wider organisational dimension and the real management skill is knowing how to facilitate communication on many levels.

Below: model of employee questions to be addressed through line manager and corporate internal communication