4 ways leaders can successfully engage staff during change

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Quick question to all you leaders out there. It’s confession time. How many of you have been guilty of doing the same thing as the CEO in the Dilbert strip above? Go on, you know confession is good for the soul!

Employee engagement.

Type the term in to Google and you get 9,720,000 results. That’s a lot of people talking about it.

Clearly there’s big business in employee engagement. Talking about it. Writing about it. Helping organisations do it.

So, why is it that so many organisations and leaders struggle to do it effectively? Rather than pull at that particular thread, instead I’m going to share four things that I’ve found have worked over the past 15 years or so.

Face-to-face is best: Nothing and I mean nothing beats good old human connection or as Edwin Starr once sang, ‘Eye to Eye Contact’. I’ve observed the positive effect of leaders meeting face-to-face with their employees dozens of times – as long as they are (a) not taking up most or all of the air time and (b) they actually listen.

So, I’m sorry to say, no matter how busy you are you need to carve out time in your diary to meet with staff. Now, if you’re heading up a multi-national organisation of thousands of people then that’s going to be a bit of an ask but that’s where technology and social media come in to play. Why not have a Facebook live event via a private page? That way you also get real-time feedback on the discussion.

Involve ‘real’ people: By that, I mean pull together a focus group of opinionated, constructive grass-roots staff. People who you can test out key messages and engagement ideas with. Likewise, they can give you ideas for better ways of engaging with their colleagues. One departmental director I supported with a change programme at the BBC did this incredibly well. Interestingly, this particular director’s restructure and change programme was well supported by the various unions and even during the changes, staff morale remained amongst the highest in the organisation.

Less is often more: If there is one thing I’d love more leaders to do differently it’s to avoid sending out the corporate missive outlining whatever it is you’re intending to ‘engage’ your staff about. Corporate jargon is a no-no. Your staff will only use it to play ‘bullshit bingo’. Believe me. I’ve seen many teams over the years do exactly this. Also, avoid anything over 20 pages (seriously – yes, I have seen that). In fact, anything more than a few pages will probably be ignored. Work with your communications team to help you distil things down into the relevant information that will be of interest to your employees (and what will be of interest to them, will most likely be different to what interests your board).

Understand and respect differences: Things like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) show us that different people like to receive information in different ways. I’ve helped leaders use this understanding to develop engagement strategies that work. You need to deploy a range of tactics encompassing big picture through to minute detail; the end game through to the step-by-step timetable; the logic of why things are happening as well as demonstrate empathy and compassion for people affected; use a range of communication styles, verbal through to written, large group through to individual meetings.

Underpinning all of this is having a good enough understanding of your own preferences. I’ve seen a number of chief execs and directors fall in to the trap of engaging and communicating with staff in the way that they like to be engaged with. This requires you to dig deep and put aside your own preferences, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. For example, if you don’t like talking with large groups of people well, I’m sorry but that’s tough. Someone needs to do it and that person is you. The head honcho.

I’d love to know what engagement approaches you’ve used that have worked. Feel free to drop me a line, or use the comments section on the blog. Thanks!

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Hayley Lewis is a chartered psychologist and a lecturer on the Masters in Organisational Psychology at City University, London. She has held various senior leadership roles covering services including organisational development, ICT, customer services and communications. Hayley works with leaders looking to achieve exceptional performance at an individual, team and organisational level.

Follow Hayley on Twitter or LinkedIn

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