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Nigel Purse

The Oxford Group


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Engaging through powerful, authentic conversations


Low levels of employee engagement are still burdening many organisations if the findings of a recent survey by The Oxford Group reflect what’s happening more broadly.

In a survey of 1000 ABC1s (upper middle class, middle class, lower middle class), only a third of UK employees said their relationship with their boss was characterised by trust and honesty. And two-thirds said they hadn’t had a discussion about their future aspirations with their line manager. These findings, and many others of the survey, reveal the scale of the employee engagement challenge.

Despite it being five years now since the case for employee engagement was presented in such an unequivocal way by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, relatively few organisations have implemented engagement strategies to date that have delivered a lasting solution.

Why is this? It may well be that they don’t fully consider the importance of the way humans interact on a very basic level.

At the heart of a good relationship between manager and employee is open, regular communication, the most basic form of which is conversation. Sadly, however, in this era of email, social media and other forms of e-working, many managers have forgotten the power of two-way human conversations to build relationships, trust, engagement and performance at work.

People have always talked to each other – face-to-face, using gesture and touch, smiles and frowns, sharing hopes and fears – to build trust, relationships and collaboration and to get things done.

Unfortunately, conversations don’t happen enough at work – or at all. If we extrapolate the recent survey data, up to 2.5 million UK workers consider themselves so detached from their boss that they rarely see them and when they do they barely speak.

And the situation is not significantly better in organisations where conversations do take place, because the quality and focus of these is almost always inadequate. This leads to employee complaints that line managers are insincere or that talking doesn’t achieve anything. Again, the survey data reflects this – nearly a third of workers said there is a true lack of communication from their managers about what the company is aiming for. And more than a third of people said that praise from their manager either means nothing to them or annoys them.

Adopting a conversations mindset

The solution is not to implement a ‘learn and do’ skills course in which managers take away the tools at the end and implement them – or not.  Instead it must help in fostering a culture in which managers know which conversations to have and why, and do so with a positive intent and genuine integrity.  Organisations must think long term to maximise the return and that means working hard to instil a new mindset with on-going feedback, review and coaching.

The starting point is to focus on just five conversations which, when mastered by line managers, have the potential to transform relationships with their teams. The five key conversation themes are:

1. Establishing a trusting relationship

The cornerstone for all that follows is a conversation to establish trust between a line manager and employee. Trust is both the fuel into the conversations and the output of them, and it can signal a new phase in the relationship. And it is never too late to have this conversation. It starts by creating an intimate and protected space to talk and can be initiated with a proposition – delivered with sincerity, that’s vitally important – like:

“I’d like to meet up to talk about how we can build a really effective working relationship.”

2. Agreeing mutual expectations

Managers must know how to have a conversation which agrees mutual expectations, based on mutual understanding and dependency. It raises the conversation beyond simple objective setting by focusing on mutual aspirations, addressing what each person wants to achieve and – importantly – why. This will help to identify who else within the organisation is critical to the staff member’s success and presents the opportunity to explore how emotions connect with expectations. This conversation could start with a question such as:

“Tell me about what you are seeking to achieve and why.”

3. Showing genuine appreciation

Building a high quality relationship will be a challenge if an employee feels his or her manager is insincere. So show genuine appreciation by using the art of ‘appreciative inquiry’ rather than traditional feedback methods in order to understand and build on strengths.

This is an area managers often neglect and avoid at work given their relentless focus on deficiencies, and yet it boosts awareness and confidence as well as nourishing the relationship.

Conversations which apply appreciative enquiry will involve statements and questions such as:

“Talk to me about what’s going really well for you at the moment”

And don’t forget that genuine appreciation can start with a simple thank you:

“Thank you for this contribution – I really appreciate it!”

4. Challenging unhelpful behaviour

Managers will often need to address negative behaviour. But by articulating the effect that behaviour has and a request for change, they can reduce the ‘threat’ felt by the other person and increase the likelihood of acceptance.  

Understanding ‘non-violent communication’ (NVC) principles is useful here in helping managers to take ownership for the feedback. This approach emerged from a need for peace-making skills in the early 1960s and is an effective way of honestly expressing needs and feelings whilst maintaining positive personal relationships.

This conversation has four elements – observations, feelings, needs and request.

Through preparation and applying NVC skills, a manager will be able to close the conversation in a way that ‘reboots’ the relationship.

5. Building for the future

Often head-hunters know more about employees than their managers. So a conversation which explores what past and present aspirations look like must take place.

It’s a two-pronged approach which is crucial in giving managers the opportunity to explore how they can meet the needs of a staff member, while keeping valuable talent in the organisation.

Lasting outcomes

The simplicity of these conversations gives them their power when approached with a positive intent and genuine integrity. So by placing a programme of ‘learning how and why to have conversations’ at the heart of an employee engagement strategy, line managers will develop an understanding to the background to engagement and learn a simple yet powerful agenda for holding conversations.

Remember that line managers will need to build on the insights they acquire in order to enable the right beliefs and develop the emotional commitment necessary to make these conversations happen as an integral part of every working day. They will then be equipped to pro-actively create opportunities to hold the conversations in the days, weeks and months ahead.

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Nigel Purse


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