How Not to Kill Employee Engagement

Avoid death by brownbag and other well-intentioned morale busters.

Employee morale in the federal government has reached its lowest point in years. Low morale can paralyze an organization and impede its ability to meet its mission. To overcome this substantial challenge, federal leaders should strive to better engage their staff. Internal communication is a fundamental component for engagement within an organization because it helps employees understand how their work supports the larger mission and gives them a voice in the direction of the organization. In pursuit of enhancing internal communications and empowering staff, leaders often look to a variety of venues including brownbag lunches, all-hands meetings, and office-wide communiqués. While these are not inherently bad tactics, in many organizations they tend to be check-the-box activities rather than forums for true engagement and learning. In other words, the existence of these venues does not an internal communications strategy make. To break the cycle, leaders should focus on intention over tactics.

Before scheduling meetings or sending out a memo, pause to consider: ‘What am I really after?’ Is it that you have a bunch of meetings and memos, or that you find a way to share knowledge and expertise, provide opportunities for learning, and create a sense of community within your organization? It’s crucial to emphasize the intention over the tactic. The intention is the true goal, while a set of well-developed tactics help you get there.

Here are some tips for focusing on intention rather than tactics:

Thought Leadership > Brownbags

It may seem like I’m picking on brownbags, but they can be successful when done well. The challenge with brownbags is that they are optional and can often become a “sit and get” experience as opposed to a rousing discussion. What are organizations really after when they conduct brownbags? I would argue it’s thought leadership. Specifically, you want staff to demonstrate and enhance their professional expertise. To build thought leadership, leaders should explore several tactics beyond brownbags, including blogging, conference panel participation, hosting webinars, and entry into relevant competitions. Empower your staff to sharpen their skills and become recognized voices in their areas of expertise; it will foster better engagement than ad hoc presentations that seem more like chores. If you are conducting a brownbag, make sure it is truly engaging so staff will gain something valuable from it—if not, it’s not worth the time and energy.

Community > All Hands

Staff members often dread office-wide meetings as being unengaging, repetitive and not valuable. This is a great disservice to an organization. An event in which the entire or majority of staff is together should serve to inspire new thought and compelling discussion, and ultimately foster a sense of community. As opposed to the standard all-hands or town hall formats, consider some other tactics to foster community. Rotate the design of office-wide meetings among teams with members in various divisions. This provides opportunities for true staff engagement and ensures fresh perspectives so the meeting content doesn’t get stale. Explore special topics and relevant trends to build excitement around your organization’s work and why it’s important. Incorporate breakout group discussion so that people feel more comfortable speaking up and sharing their thoughts (this also builds interconnectedness across an organization). Finally, make sure when you get to the Q&A portion, as opposed to saying “what questions do you have?” (which will often be met with blank stares), ask a series of targeted questions to better understand how the staff have interpreted the information.

Checking the Pulse > Memos

The fundamental problem with many memos or office-wide emails is that they are one-directional: Someone is telling everyone else how it is. Often, this creates more questions than it answers, and whoever sends it is missing the most important part: how people interpreted it. Everyone consumes information differently—people will draw unique, sometimes contradictory conclusions from the exact same sentence. To ensure that staff members truly understand your intended message, send out the baseline information and then consider conducting focus groups to explore policy changes or new strategic directions. Discuss the benefits and potential challenges that change might bring. This will help ensure more effective implementation, and you are more likely to get staff buy-in when they have a chance to discuss. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of one-on-one conversations to really understand people’s concerns. Individual perspectives ultimately make up the greater pulse of the organization.

Storytelling > Status Updates

Reading a report full of status updates can be excruciating. These reports have their utility but offer little to audiences who aren’t familiar with the project or program. As opposed to providing unspecific updates, tell a story. Storytelling can be incredibly powerful and help others understand the true impact of a project or initiative. In crafting the story, think about what’s currently in the news to see if there are any links that can peak interest and help others understand. Also consider how this project moves the needle of your organization. If you people can see how it relates to the bigger picture that they are also working to support they are more likely to care.

What have you done to make sure your employees are engaged?

Gleason Rowe is a consultant at Corner Alliance.

(Image via 186PIX/Shutterstock.com)