Expert Panel

Focus on these things to succeed in Workplace Communication Skills

Get ‘Em Onboard: Engage Employees by Being Real


{#/pub/images/GetEmOnboard.jpg}Much is being bandied about on how to best engage employees. We have employers who want engaged employees and employees who want to be engaged. From the employer side, research shows us engaged employees lead to better results. Kenexa reports that engaged companies have five times higher shareholder returns over five years. From the employee side, one of the many insights in a Towers Perrin 2009 report is that employees want to give more.  


Okay, then. We have both sides wanting the same thing - engagement. But Gallup continues to report in their annual survey that we have a problem. In 2012, only 30% of employees were engaged, 52% were disengaged and 18% were actively disengaged.  And Gallup estimates that the latter category costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year.  Ouch! 


How are we so badly missing the boat?  Maybe it’s because we are keeping it docked in the kiddie pool instead of the big ocean. Our communication strategies onboarding people to new ideas and changing conditions need a serious overhaul. 


Why, Oh Why?

Author and Columbia faculty, Simon Sinek, has popularized the concept of The Golden Circle. The inner bulls’ eye of his concept is asking the question, “Why?” As a kindred spirit, I subscribe to Simon’s concept that engaging people requires sharing the back story on why we are doing the things we do. We don’t have to write a novel but we do need to share why we are making the decisions we make from the options available. In any communication strategy, we need to explain why we need to change. 


The reason, by the way, has to make sense. No half answers. When we think we are especially clever, we are usually more transparent than we realize and employees can see right through the story. The object is engagement -- not breaking off the engagement.  


Answer WIIFM – What’s In It For Me?

Make yourself a matrix or mind map of all the interested parties. Who cares?  No, I mean it. Ask, “Who cares?”  Think about all the stakeholders who care about the subject you need to communicate. Then after you think you are done, ask “Who’s missing?” A sure-fire way for disengagement is to not include an important individual or team that really needed to be involved. 


Now determine each stakeholder’s motivation. What is important to them? We need to understand where they maybe relative to our change. 


Next, what do we think their reaction is going to be?  We don’t want to assume too much but we do want – with the highest intention – to think of how they might react. Once you think you know, put yourself in their shoes and look again. Ask a representative from that area on the expected reaction. Better yet, make sure each area is on the team making the decision and has had a hand in the change.  


If you understand where your stakeholders are and their possible reactions, then you can explain the change in terms that allow you to answer what’s in it for them. You must answer, “How will this help me?” Engaged employees want solutions and to be a part of solutions. 


Handling the Truth 

After deciding how to share the why and thinking through the audience, don’t forget to tell the truth in language they can hear. Lest we envision Jack Nicholson screaming at Tom Cruise in a courtroom scene, “You can’t handle the truth!”, we must realize that era of treating employees like children is over.  This is a holdover from a previous hierarchical business society where only the guys at the top knew all the answers and weren’t willing to share.  It was a power play. Now we are more into sharing power because we are beginning to truly understand how much better we can be together than alone. 


Protecting the masses by dumbing down the news is over. We’ve weathered turbulent times, we can handle the truth. With gossip proven to be the most effective organizational communication channel (I kid you not!), the reality is going to come out anyway. Information is traveling at the speed of the internet. Let’s get real. Again, we are seeking engagement, not disengagement.  


A Fear-Filled Response?

Speaking of reality, as human beings we tend to be very polar: good or bad, black or white.  We forget that there is a continuum of options between the poles. When communicating the message, remind the audience that the good can be pulled right along with the change. Some employees have an automatic response that says change is bad. If we can take the best of what was along with us, we have a better shot -- not only of communicating well -- but being successful with the project.  


Of course, we will have needed to commit to this up front:  taking the best of the old system.  If this is not the case, changes that require a 180 degree movement need much more communication in terms of frequency and quantity. This is especially true of big strategic and technology system changes. 



If we develop a thoughtful communication strategy for any kind of change, we honor where our employees are at, telling them the truth and linking how the change can solve a problem in compelling language that makes sense.  No need to spin the message until we are dizzy or strategize for too long. 


In a way, it can sound ridiculously simple to engage employees if you really think about it. 

  • What’s the change?

  • Why do we need to change?

  • How will the change impact me? 

  • How will it solve a problem?

  • Tell the truth. 

  • Treat employees like the adults that they are. 

  • Take the good along with you as you change.


It’s time to take our communications off of cruise control and positively engage employees by being real.



{#/pub/images/SherriPetroUpdated.jpg}Written by Sherri Petro, President of VPI Strategies & California Miramar University (CMU) Professor Sherri is a professor, accomplished strategist, organizational development professional and executive coach.  She consulted for 13 years in the for-profit, non-profit, and government sectors after a 16 year corporate career.  She teaches the Strategy Capstone as well as Leadership, Change Management and Business Ethics courses in CMU’s MBA program. Her current passion is educating organizations on how to increase organizational sustainability by leveraging the talents and skills of all in multi-generational workplaces. Sherri offers remedies to misunderstandings that result from different belief structures and lack of coherent communication by creating understanding and making connections at the belief level not only at the behavioral level.


Do you have a question for Sherri?  Please visit our Workplace Communication Skills Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


Did you find this story informative?  We would like the opportunity to keep you up to date on all of our training articles.  Please register for our newsletter so we can do just that.  


Here are some related articles you may be interested in: 

Communicating Change In a World Traveling at Break-Neck Speed

14 Steps to Using Surveys As Powerful Communication Tools

A Model for Active Listening: Master a Skill That Can Boost Your Career

Overcome Complacency in the Workplace

Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace: How to Develop Yourself & Your Team




ManagingAmericans.com provides Exclusive Management, Leadership & Cross-Functional Training in the form of articles, templates & webinars developed by Experienced Business Professionals & Expert Consultants sharing knowledge, success tips and solutions to common job issues. In addition to offering business assessments, and management consulting services, the site’s purpose is to mentor and develop professionals to be better leaders, managers, team players and individual contributors. Ultimately, helping people & businesses succeed via practical and actionable advice in a “do-it-yourself” environment.




Do you emphasize your own opinions when you give presentations at work?