It isn’t very fashionable to talk about what motivates people at the moment. As we all know, it’s an employer’s market and survival and job security are understandable obsessions. But even though employees have undoubtedly slipped quite some way down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, fear and drum-banging cascade communication will never be enough to sustain performance indefinitely. And surely even the most hard-nosed FD must have one eye on the consequences of recovery.

Almost every week now we’re hearing about employee engagement studies like this one from the Hay Group. Yet we’re still shocked that, despite the fact that most business leaders identify disengaged employees as one of the top three most significant threats facing their business, very few ever “get down to” or even discuss employee engagement in the boardroom.

So what can we infer from this paradox? That the leaders don’t really care? That they feel they can get away with doing nothing? That they are wary of stirring the passions of their people if they start whispering sweet nothings and aren’t sure they’re up to dealing with the consequences? I have my theories. You make up your own minds.

I’m not sure the latest report into internal communication trends from Edelman helps though. While there’s much of interest in the report, it hardly role models effective communication in the way it’s written. And I’m frankly dumbstruck by  statements like “Employee engagement is becoming more and more about how an employee “experiences” the organization – relationships with leaders, managers, colleagues, andcustomers coupled with access to information,connectedness to conversations.” “Becoming”? If engagement hasn’t always been about actual experience, what exactly have people been talking about/doing?

Against this disconcerting backdrop, it’s interesting, however, to note the slowly swelling tide of articles stressing the importance of culture to the apparent employee engagement conundrum. One of the latest is by GE exponent Ron Ashkenas in the Harvard Business Review outlining the need to focus on evolving culture development rather than dictating change.

Regardless of the apparent gap between leadership thinking and doing, however, it’s interesting to observe that authenticity emerges time and again at the heart of the engagement and culture discussions.

Genuine, trustworthy communication is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of employee engagement. It encourages openness and honesty and stimulates involvement, all qualities which are critical to developing and sustaining a culture of performance.

True performance cultures aren’t just short-term focused. They are sustainable and are based on mutual trust and respect. Only a fool focuses solely on the outputs without devoting time and effort to understanding and replicating the conditions that maximise returns.

Job security, pay and rations are clearly very important. But true wisdom lies with the 30 to 40 per cent of leaders who not only acknowledge but, right now, despite the downturn, aren’t fretting over definitions or business case but are putting in place systematic engagement and culture development strategies to not just survive but move ahead of the game. There are clearly genuine engagement lovers, those who talk a good game and those who dare not speak its name.

Intrigued to hear what category your leadership team currently falls into


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