Grassroot’ Employee Engagement Way Forward For Organizations

Over the last few months I have observed closely as employees took ownership to drive various engagement initiatives across the organization I work in. Unlike other organizations where dedicated teams are assigned to create a fun place, employees here leverage their ‘collective wisdom’ to uplift the mood in the offices.

What started as a ‘community event’ to build connection and improve the ‘buzz’ in the office grew into a twice a month engagement calendar event focusing on the company’s key milestones. There are now more and more employees volunteering to chip in with events! Despite the slowdown and pressing demands, the focus has always been on creating a positive workplace.

Looking glass

Looking glass

Inspired by the team of enthusiastic individuals who championed the first event other employees stepped forward to do their bit. Not just the event, they also immersed themselves in communication, promotion and measurement! From sharing updates about the company’s strategy to articulating progress on initiatives. From highlighting values to recognizing high performers. A successful ‘shared responsibility’ model. When asked what drives them, the response is that they like the ‘culture’ and ‘want to contribute more’ to make it better.

So while most organizations rely on the human resources group or a ‘dedicated’ counsel for employee engagement or the cool sounding ‘Chief Fun Officer’ to own and drive engagement, I strongly believe a grass root approach works best. ‘Grass root’ engagement to me is a movement from within and from the ‘bottom-up’ rather than a high level view of what engagement should be.

In their white paper titled ‘Market Research: Voice of the Employee” Globoforce discusses how engagement can improve morale and remain a priority in good or bad times. Communication and recognition are highlighted as essential elements for success.

While surveys agree that engagement drive productivity and improve the bottom-line, it is the final lap of the equation that matters to employees. Employees seek on-the-ground tangible effort that is direct, transparent and visible.

Rather than see a top-down initiative to drive engagement employees usually ask:  

a)       How can I contribute to the effort?

b)      What more can I do to make a difference to the organization?

c)       Can I do something now to improve connection?

So how does this work and how can you as human resources or communicators play an active role?  Here are some thoughts.

Provide a framework: As the internal communicators, you can help define templates for running local connection programs. Basic planning sheets, budget trackers, communication formats, post connection feedback questionnaire, promotion outlines among others. Even communication documents to reduce turnaround time. Discuss and arrive at a formal process for content and design reviews so that you can avoid reinventing the wheel.

Lead by action: Participate in planning meetings and call out the role of internal communication for the success of connection programs. Such as review of communication, support for promotion and internal branding guidance. Work closely on a couple of connection programs to seek more opportunities to pitch in.

Empower: The organization must empower employee(s) to take decisions and thereby evolve their own guidelines for connection programs.  The event owners much be provided all support be it with budgets or with relevant tools and resources.

Recognize instantaneously: I found employees seek recognition and soon. It is the responsibility of local leadership to take action as soon as they see tangible results and effort on the part of employees to go over and beyond.

Communicate widely: We leverage our intranet to showcase the connection events and how employees have contributed. The weekly newsletter carries snippets which the entire organization can read at a glance. This is in itself a wonderful form of recognition.

Plan ahead: When employees see a long term plan they believe there is commitment from the organization to invest in engagement programs. Share the calendar in advance and seek ideas to improve the event formats and feedback mechanism.

Finally – let employees have fun! The most recent event had an interesting connection exercise called ‘Festival of Joy’ as well as a relevant ‘Know Your Colleague’ Contest. The participation it drew was testament of this excellent engagement model.

Culture Deep Dives and Focus Group Facilitation Ideas

I recently sat in on a focus group session on ‘culture’ that sought employees’ perspectives on the organization’s traits and thoughts on how to retain or strengthen the organization’s DNA.  The forums held across the organization are an attempt to gauge the role ‘culture’ plays on engagement and align employees based on an action plan.

The insights and the power of the forum impressed me. I wanted to pen down and share my views on effectively conducting such sessions.  Also articulate how communicators can gain from participating in these discussions or play an active role as observers.

Effective context setting: To begin, it is important to get a cross-section of individuals across roles, levels and tenure. Hand picking ‘vocal’ (those whom you know have strong opinions and are open to voice them) employees also helps. Include if possible, individuals who have experience or ongoing interactions with teams in other geographies. Prep for the conversation early. Share the background, the initiative’s objectives, the leadership commitment and how the organization benefits increases the participant’s comfort levels. Ask employees for their definition of culture – I discovered that the organization’s thinking may not completely match with their idea! At the end of the discussion, you are seeking insights and ideas that can trigger improvements to the engagement and culture.

Plugged In

Plugged In

Stay positive: You must be ready to hear ‘not so good news’ about the organization, internal groups, specific leaders or unpopular programs. Avoid reacting or getting defensive. Although the forum isn’t a ‘crib’ session, there might not be many other avenues for employees to let their feelings show. By being sensitive to employees’ views and staying neutral, you are also indicating your openness and maturity as a leader and facilitator.

Pause, confirm and proceed: I observed participants speaking from their ‘experience’ of how they perceived the organization. It is vital to know from where they were viewing ‘culture’. Understand their line of sight. For example, one individual explained in exasperation on the ‘slow and bureaucratic methods followed by the organization’ when he was referring to the ‘experience’ he faced with one internal team when he joined the organization. That one experience colored his impression of the entire group and office. So was it a substantial lead? Was it a pattern? Good to probe further.

Keep the discussion grounded: While facilitating, try to differentiate the wheat from the chaff. Avoid getting waylaid by ‘feedback on feedback’ – that is referencing a comment or a statement heard recently as a crutch to discuss a ‘culture’ issue.  For example, if one participant discusses ‘hierarchy’, there can be another who takes the thread further by adding their personal feedback to how they view it. Keep your ears open for sentences starting with ‘I heard this from…..’ or ‘My friend mentioned……’.  That diverts the course of the conversation. Allow participants to talk at their own pace instead of going ‘round robin’ which puts pressure on participants to share ‘something’ just to get over their turn! Identify a good note taker who can ascertain what each participant meant before penning it down on paper.

Share next steps: Very often the complaint is that we ‘take feedback but we don’t inform what is done with it’.  Before closing explain how this information will get sifted, who will be responsible and when there will be a report out to employees. Invite them to continue the dialogue and keep sharing feedback.  This helps to quell the ‘bad mouthing’ that often follows surveys when employees all their valuable inputs have been ignored. Summarize and ask for ways to improve such sessions.

As communicators, you will also hear cool ideas on how employees perceive internal communication and their recommendations to improve reach, understanding and frequency.  One suggestion which I found intriguing was the need to ‘incentivize’ communication specifically around large change management programs. Again, a ‘culture’ pointer – as compared to other geographies such as the States or EU, in India, I was told it helps to draw participants with more ‘what’s in it for me’ elements.

Can Effective Communication Create an ‘Entrepreneurial’ Workforce?

An article Happier your folks, the better it works’ which points to Deloitte’s research, ‘Employee engagement in recessionary times – a changing talent perspective’ corroborates this thought.

The findings indicate that while the recession has brought about changes in ‘job roles’, ‘job competencies’ and ‘key performance indicators’, employees are asked to contribute more on ‘cost management’, ‘innovation’ and ‘quality’.

To me, aren’t these elements something we think of when starting up or aiming to be entrepreneurs?



So in effect, during the recession, organizations have been inclined to get employees to display creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. Excellent signs.

So believes the Reebok India Head, Subhinder Singh Prem, who says, “We do not believe in creating an employee-boss relationship rather we have focused on creating an entrepreneurship model, where all senior employees act as businessmen.”

Another senior leader vouches – “Employees who receive organization decisions and strategies and employees start demonstrating more ownership in everything they do.  The level of trust within the organization also improves significantly. All of this has a very high positive impact on employee morale and retention. Employees feel they are part of a larger family and part of the decision making process.”

Interestingly, the article also indicates that engagement as a concept is understood differently across organizations. For some rolling out an employee assistance program, running fun events, investing in leadership development, defining a referral program or rewarding employees are considered to aid engagement.

What employees expect is not just a set of ‘people oriented’ programs but transparency, direct communication, consistent messages and easy access to the leadership. 

See this – ‘most companies surveyed felt that senior management should be clearly visible in building excitement about the future and creating a positive environment that boosts employee morale’.  

The spike in the number of companies using Town Halls and face to face communication as compared to newsletters and blogs further demonstrates how Indian organizations are tuned to addressing their employees.

 Have a different viewpoint? Share it here.

Communicators as Coaches to Build Your Organization’s Culture

“Coaching is for professionals”, “I am not qualified to coach”, “So much work – who has the time to coach?”, “I rather tell my team what to do rather than do this time consuming coaching bit”.

Heard these before? Sounds familiar?

The Times of India Ascent (September 2, 2009) front page story on mentorship and coaching highlighted how senior leaders have learnt and shared knowledge during their careers. Quite inspiring.

Surprisingly, a recent study by BlessingWhite paints a different picture on coaching.

Called the Coaching Conundrum 2009, it draws from research that reflects interviews with 60 HR and line leaders, survey responses of 2,041 individuals in North America, Asia, and Europe, and analysis of coaching profile assessments for more than 8,000 managers.

Hue and cry

Hue and cry

Some of the findings stand out for me, that is, when I relate it to organizations I have worked for and how internal communicators can leverage it for building a growth culture.

a) Most managers love to coach, and most employees like to be coached but only 1 in 2 survey respondents in North America and Asia receive coaching

b) Managers who coach regularly describe tangible benefits (e.g., increased team productivity) and 2/3rds of employees who receive coaching say it improved their satisfaction and performance

c) Organizations and managers talk a lot about coaching skills and processes but a trusting, supportive relationship appears to be the most important ingredient in effective coaching.

It is important to understand the difference between mentorship and coaching before we can embark on how these tools can be build into your organization’s DNA, if not already so.

Mentorship refers to a developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps a less experienced or less knowledgeable person –who can be referred to as a protégé, or apprentice — to develop in a specified capacity.

While Coaching is a method of directing, instructing and training a person or group of people, with the aim to achieve some goal or develop specific skills. Not to be confused with ‘supervising’ which is defined as ‘to have the charge and direction of’.

In the realm of organizations, a coaching culture is easier to build than mentorship and more tangible.

So does one need to be formally trained to be a coach or can you begin coaching anyone, anytime?

I think the latter holds good. There isn’t a reason to wait since you don’t need any specific infrastructure to begin. Before you begin though, you need to understand your objectives.

Are you hoping to grow your employees? Do you think you can create capability in your team?

Can you free bandwidth to take up strategic roles? Is there a something you want your team to unlearn? How can you see your team successful? Have you seen a best practice that can be imbibed by your employees?

So how can you begin and build it into your organization’s culture? What is the relevance of it for internal communicators?

It does not matter if your organization is a private or a public enterprise, a college or a start-up, I believe the opportunities to coach your immediate team members, your peers or other colleagues exist. As internal communicators, you can help your team look at approaches freshly, revise the way communication is perceived or created and build specific skills and competencies. By practicing coaching, internal communicators can also step up as ‘ambassadors’ and demonstrate value to senior leadership.  In internal communication teams specifically in India, I know this is much needed.

Build from a position of strength: To start, it is important to be viewed as a credible resource and someone who is established as a ‘leader’. ‘Leader’ in this context is not someone with authority but someone who ‘gains the respect’ by adding tangible value over time.

Identify coaching opportunities: Understand that each member of your team brings certain strengths and growth areas and it is vital to identity where you can play a pivotal role. It can be something as simple as helping a person to write effective e-mails. Or, how to improve visibility among stakeholders.

Demonstrate value: Remember that coaching does take effort. Be sure of how much time you can commit but once you identify that chunk of mind space, spend them judiciously. Have a plan to define goals, outcomes and milestones. Give feedback often and directly. Link it to performance and benefits. Help your ‘coachee’ see results.

Popularize coaching success stories: Are you aware of senior leaders in your organization who exhibit coaching prowess? Can you make them your ambassadors? Create podcasts and news articles based on their insights and experiences. Encourage them to share their perspectives on what worked and what does not.

Outline guidelines:  Prepare from your experience templates and ‘cheat sheets’ which can help others run their own coaching programs. It can be simple ‘notes capture templates’, ‘plan definition’ charts or even simple ‘feedback forms’ to collate inputs.

Assess changes: It is in your interest to ensure the success of your coachee. Find out obstacles which are coming in the way, give them inputs on overcoming them. Not ‘overcoming’ them on their behalf! That is a trap coaches often fall into in our enthusiasm to achieve our goals. Conduct a survey to ascertain quantifiable value.

Communicate wins: Share progress with other stakeholders so that the ‘coachee’ knows how much distance got covered. By communicating regularly, I am hopeful you can build a culture where coaching is embedded into the organization’s thinking.

Keen to try coaching from today? It’s worth the effort to try to make this happen. Give it a shot and I am sure you will see results emerge from your effort.