Breaking the Rule of Engagement: New Opportunities for Internal Communication


Mike Klein

The push for employee engagement has begun its decline, which is something that should cause the spirits of internal communicators to soar.

It may be too early to declare victory, but prominent articles in Harvard Business Review and Forbes reflect increasingly vocal skepticism among HR practitioners and internal communicators at the idea of employee engagement as an almighty purpose for our profession. The unwillingness of the international IC measurements standards team to include engagement in its work underscores this skepticism.

The waning faith in the real value of employee engagement is also reflected in more frequent challenges to the main unwritten IC rule that’s been in place since the turn of the century: The goal of internal communication is to drive high engagement survey scores, across the board, and all other goals and activities were either secondary or immaterial. Now, we see increasing appetite for selective and strategic IC interventions unconnected to the employee engagement agenda.

Why now?

The value of high employee engagement scores has always been difficult to measure. Even with a much-lauded relationship between employee engagement and various measures of organizational performance, the relationship between investment in employee engagement initiatives and actual performance is far more elusive. Indeed, there does not appear to be an established relationship between spending on employee engagement initiatives and employee engagement scores.

The damage unleashed by the enforced focus of internal communication on a one-size-fits-all strategy is much easier to assess:

  • Organizational initiatives and projects left to falter without adequate communication support

  • Alienation of stakeholders denied professional communication support by communication departments

  • Cynicism and resistance from managers and employees whose own experience did not match the experience promised by the engaged organization

  • Budget wastage on events and collateral designed to drive a feel good effect that drives engagement scores rather than on activities to empower leaders, managers and staff to perform more effectively

  • Insufficient attention paid to the differentiated roles of leaders, managers, and influencers in driving organizational conversations and prioritization, leading to rumor and misalignment

Seizing the initiative

Now, strategically minded internal communicators must overcome additional challenges, even as they are getting free from the employee engagement straitjacket.

Budgets are a lagging indicator. So, while the IC world is beginning to wake up to the possibility that there is life after employee engagement, the first step will involve wresting control of budgets from those who’ve pushed employee engagement, and also finding internal customers and budget holders who can see the relationship between the alignment of people and resources and the delivery of specific objectives.They must develop and embrace value-based metrics and measurements to justify their involvement in change and other organizational priorities.

Once there are customers and projects, the opportunity becomes more clear to demonstrate value and re-establish internal communication as a serious business discipline by:

  • Accelerating the completion of projects and initiatives

  • Mobilizing influencers to share and contextualize messages for their peers

  • Supporting alignment in the direction of common purposes, visions and objectives

  • Clarifying desired behaviors and brand attributes

  • Spreading the adoption of new technologies

  • Facilitating the integration of acquisitions

  • Identifying the value created by connections employees initiate with each other through transformational networking

All of these activities not only help deliver real organizational ambitions, their impact on those ambitions can be measured.

  • Project completion speed can be measured relative to expectations and to projects of comparable scope and budget