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Employee voice: An antecedent to organisational engagement?

Last week at Bledcom Dr Mary Welch and I presented a paper that we are working on relating to employee voice and engagement.

This comes from part of my PhD thesis and the research has been inspired by a critique of the academic literature that suggests that ‘relatively little attention has been given to the relationship between voice and engagement’[1]

The study adopts three research objectives:

-How satisfied are employees with opportunities to exercise their voice?

-How good are line managers and senior managers at responding to suggestions from employees?

-To what extent might employee voice be positively associated with organisational engagement?

Although there is no consensus on the definition of employee voice it is often described either as an indirect process that includes trade union representation or as direct individual and/or group processes that relate to speaking up inside organisations. Our research adopts the latter definition and is focused on employee engagement and, in particular, organisational engagement which relates to an employee’s engagement with their employing organisation rather than their job.

The research is based on a questionnaire that incorporates a correlational research design that was administered at five organisations in England and Wales. The questionnaire explores employee satisfaction with opportunities for voice via questions which enable participants to rate items including: opportunities to feed my views upwards; ways for me to pass on criticisms; and, ways for me to communicate ideas to top management. It also includes questions that enable participants to rate line managers and senior managers on how good they are at responding to suggestions. The total combined number of respondents was 2066.

Initial data analysis has found variable satisfaction with elements of employee voice in the five organisations in the study. Results for ‘opportunities to feed my views upwards’ ranged from 28 percent to 59 percent, measured on a 1-5 Likert type scale with 5 denoting  ‘very satisfied’. Line managers are rated as better at responding to suggestions than senior managers in the study. In two organisations the ratings for senior managers responding to suggestions were very low.

A positive association between satisfaction with employee voice and organisational engagement has been indicated in correlation analysis for all five organisations. This is particularly strong for emotional organisational engagement.

This research extends our understanding of how employee voice is associated with employee engagement. The findings suggest that internal communication strategies that incorporate employee voice as a systematic process may have an impact on employee engagement.

Here’s the slide pack from Bledcom with more of the data…

Employee voice: An antecedent to organisational engagement? from Kevin Ruck

[1] Gruman, J.A., Saks, A. 2014. Being psychologically present when speaking up: employee voice engagement. In Wilkinson et al. (Eds) Handbook of Research on Employee Voice, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Reflections on an internal communication PhD

Six years on, the final amendments to my PhD thesis have just been approved by the examiner at the University of Central Lancashire. So it feels like a good time to reflect on the process and what I’ve discovered along the way.

The thesis is 83,683 words long and it incorporates more than 300 references to academic text books, reports and journal articles. It includes three chapters of conceptual analysis, essentially a review of internal communication and how it is measured. There is a chapter on my research methodology, there are two chapters on my research findings, and a final chapter on my conclusions. That’s a lot of writing (and re-writing).

Thesis cover shotThe research itself involved a survey that was followed by interviews and focus groups. A total of 2066 employees completed the questionnaire and I conducted 27 interviews and nine focus groups involving 77 employees. This is, apparently, quite a lot of research for a PhD. However, although it took a lot of organising it was worth the effort as it enabled me to explore how far satisfaction with internal communication was consistent across five organisations. From my reading of many academic journal articles this is something that I think is a weakness in single case study research.

The analysis of the survey data took a very long time to complete, partly because I had to learn how to do correlation and regression analysis. These are statistical techniques that allow you to test associations between two or more things. For example, I was able to explore how far specific aspects of internal communication (such as employee voice) are associated with employee engagement. Learning how to do this was really tough. However, I now understand the limitations of employee engagement surveys that simply show a basic percentage score for questions asked. And, by the way, employee voice was strongly associated with some dimensions of employee engagement in my study. More of some of the other findings later.

Analysing the interview and focus group data was also extremely time consuming. Open comments collected in the questionnaire amounted to 23,991 words and transcripts for the interviews and focus groups amounted to a total of 176,759 words. I used a technique called template analysis to make sense of what was said and that required several iterations of reading and coding. This really added depth to the survey findings. For example, a deeply held fear of speaking out (that is often not discussed) emerged and this explained some of the low levels of satisfaction for employee voice in the survey. This taught me that analysis of qualitative data should never be rushed. If it is to be done well, it is a slow and deeply reflective process.

It is difficult to summarise all the findings from my research in this blog. I’m also constrained by what I can say as I plan to turn the thesis into several journal article submissions and editors don’t like it if you’ve already published information somewhere else. However, I can say that internal communication is associated with organisational engagement (which is different from job engagement). No surprise there of course. You’d expect this. However, my study suggests that the association is more of an emotional than a rational (cognitive) connection. When employees receive the information that they expect in the right way and when they are given a voice that is treated seriously this makes them feel more valued. And this is also associated with what employees do to help the organisation succeed. Importantly, these associations were consistent for all five organisations in the study, although more research is required to establish this as a generalisable finding.

Another key finding is that employees expect senior managers, not line managers, to talk to them about how the wider organisation is doing. This is because they know that line managers do not have nearly as much in-depth knowledge about what is going on as senior managers. Instead, employees expect line managers to talk about local team matters. This has clear implications for cascade style briefing systems.

Employees in my study said that they prefer senior manager communication to be face to face in small gatherings, where the emphasis is on informal communication with plenty of opportunity for discussion. However, in two organisations in my study satisfaction with senior manager communication and employee voice was poor, reflecting some of the results reported in other studies.

As part of a critical realism approach to the thesis, I also considered why levels of satisfaction with internal communication are not higher. Two potential explanations were discussed:
1. An emphasis on shareholder value rather than employee value
2. The professional status of internal communication practice as a marginalised and weakly represented function.

These are potential systemic explanations that can be related to power structures that may not always be very apparent. On the first point, although senior managers say they recognise the importance of internal communication, it is perhaps only a surface level recognition. As one employee said to me about a comment made to senior manager at an employee roadshow event, ‘he smiled, but not with his eyes’. It seems to me that the focus on shareholder value dominates a lot of business studies and executive training, whereas putting employees first is rarely explored in as much depth.

On the second point, we are witnessing an increasing appreciation of the professional status of internal communication which is underpinned by training and education. However, at the same time, practice continues to be marginalised by many PR and HR academics (and practitioners) alike. Furthermore, although there are estimated to be 45,000 internal communication practitioners in the UK, only a tiny percentage are members of a professional institute which means that those institutes have limited resources to represent the profession and to argue the case for its value (for employees and organisations).

These are both big issues. But unless we acknowledge them and start to address them then the potential benefits of good internal communication are going to take an awful long time to be realised.

Although the research has generated many interesting findings, as mentioned above, I can’t publish them all in detail here. However, the following points summarise the implications of what I found for practice:
• Senior managers should allocate more time for personal communication rather than expect information to be cascaded through levels of management
• Senior manager ‘town hall’ style events could be replaced or complemented with face to face events with a smaller number of employees so that they feel more comfortable in making a contribution
• Employees expect senior managers to update them on where the organisation is going, the strategy, progress and what the future looks like, using the ‘language of the people’, not corporate PowerPoint presentations
• Employees expect managers to listen to what they have to say as they report that this is a sign of a progressive organisation
• The emphasis of line manager communication should be local operational issues.

These are, I believe, key recommendations for practice. However, the point of doing a PhD is not just to do some research that might be important for theory and practice. It is a deeply challenging process on a personal level. Like all good education, it forces you to think very hard and learn new skills. There are no shortcuts.

I now also appreciate why academics are seen as more credible than many other commentators (as highlighted in the Edelman Trust Barometer). It’s because their work is peer reviewed and it is based on research methods that are not influenced by consultancy products or services.

So, I’m glad I did it. Along the way I was very lucky to have an extremely supportive supervisor, Dr Mary Welch and a very understanding wife.

And I’m now looking forward to getting some time back in the evenings and at weekends to watch lots of mindless telly.

Tips for internal communication measurement

Kevin has been blogging about measurement over on the CIPR Inside blog. It follows on from his presentation at the CIPR Inside Conference – “Making an Impact”. Here is an extract and the link to more…..

“Measurement can push communicators out of their comfort zones. After all, many of us train in creative, literary or social sciences. Our backgrounds in words, pictures and sentiments often mean that measurement, metrics and all that goes with it is not where we feel most comfortable or accomplished, and sometimes we need  some help to know where to start.

In a world where we need to prove the value of the work we do whether that’s for our bosses, clients and ourselves, we need to understand and tackle measurement of internal communication. And on closer inspection, measurement really does not have to be that big or scary to make a difference and show the worth of our work.”

Read more over on the CIPR Inside blog.

Informing is just the start and a new internal communication employee advocacy model

During the past couple of months I have been doing a bit of guest blogging. If you missed my pieces for Newsweaver and the Institute of Internal Communication, here is a summary with links to the full articles…..

Internal Communication | Keeping employees informed is just the start of the process

Internal Communication has a strong journalistic heritage that casts a long shadow over current practice. When Heather Yaxley and I researched the history of Internal Communication for the new edition of Exploring Internal Communication, we found that practitioners were often originally called ‘Industrial Editors’. The focus of practice in the 20th century was edited newspapers that majored on profiles of senior managers and corporate news, with little room for input or comment from employees.

Contemporary practice remains grounded in news items and briefings for employees and writing skills are therefore as important today as they’ve always been. However, employee expectations about the way that their organization communicates with them are becoming much more sophisticated.

My research suggests that a regular, well written, email briefing is helpful for employees. They like short summaries with links to more details on the intranet. Images and infographics in email briefings are also valued. The language used in briefings is, as we know, very important. Employees are sometimes irritated by overly crafted pieces and value informal and friendly written copy.

Although keeping employees informed through email briefings remains an important core Internal Communication function I believe it should be seen as the basis for further communication, not ‘the be all and end all’ of practice.

Read the full blog over at Newsweaver.

AVID employee supporters

Trust in CEOs, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, is declining and as a result of this employee advocacy is now becoming seen as the saviour of organisational reputation.

The suggestion is that if we supply employees with ready-made sound bites they will post them on their personal social media and this will enhance organisational reputation.

This simple and seemingly highly effective approach has been termed ‘megaphoning’ reflecting the amplification that a voluntary employee comment may have on corporate messages. Some commentators have even started to refer to employees as an organisation’s secret weapons.

However, as with many simple sounding solutions to complex issues, there may be a catch. An employee’s online friends are very likely to spot a pre-prepared message a mile off and see it for what it is; a manufactured rather than an authentic view. This could, unintentionally, have a negative effect rather than the hoped for positive, reputation enhancing, impact.

Kevin Ruck's AVID model of employee advocacy

Kevin Ruck’s AVID model of employee advocacy

It is therefore worthwhile stopping to consider what the best approach is for employees to become advocates. The starting point for advocacy is to understand what communication employees expect and then to understand how this leads to organisational engagement. When employees are genuinely engaged with their organisation (which is different to being engaged with their work) they are more likely to voluntarily post positive comments in their own authentic words.

Over on the IOIC blog, I set out the components of a new AVID model of internal communication that can be linked to employees becoming avid supporters of their organisation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Kevin

Thoughts on employee advocacy at the SMiLE conference

I ran two table discussion sessions on employee advocacy at the Social Media inside Large Enterprises (SMiLE) conference yesterday and the key points that emerged are summarised here.

The background to the emergence of employee advocacy is the decline in trust in CEOs and the stronger level of trust in ‘people like me’ (e.g. employees) identified in the Edelman Trust Barometer.

Firstly, advocacy is associated with employee pride and a belief in what the organisation does. It is dependent on being well informed and feeling inspired. This is an important prerequisite; if employees are not engaged they are unlikely to be advocates. This may sound obvious, but it emphasises the point that organisations have to work hard to engage employees first – their advocacy cannot be taken for granted.

When it comes to advocacy, participants said the expected level of employee advocacy will depend on the topic. Employees are more likely to post comments on their personal social media about products and services and CSR than annual company results. So, advocacy might work better in some sectors than others, for example organisations with simple products such as drinks rather than complex services such as energy and insurance.

Sensitivities about internal communication practitioners ‘promoting’ advocacy also emerged. So, no scripting was mentioned by some, whereas others felt comfortable in providing employees with content to share, with the proviso that it was down to employee discretion as to whether it was shared or not. This is linked to authenticity and employee understanding about policies relating to what they can say about their organisation on social media.

Some Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) include the functionality to enable content to easily be shared on external social media. However, one participant said this was switched off in his organisation as they did not want internal CEO briefings to be shared externally. One solution suggested for this is to have a dedicated channel where it is made clear that content can be shared externally. This point is, of course, related to the suggested blurring of lines between internal and external communication.

It became clear from the discussion that guidelines for employees on social media use need to be fully understood. But more importantly it is essential not to preach to employees, the best advocacy is when it is done with no prompting as it will inevitably come across as more authentic.

This summary is based on the input of 11 participants. A more in depth discussion of employee advocacy can be found in a 2014 PR Conversations blog.

 

 

A new standard for internal communication

Without research, internal communication practitioners are effectively working blindfold.

You cannot begin to measure internal communication unless you conduct research to set measurable communication objectives which then form the basis for assessing impact.

Research and measurement is the Achilles Heel of internal communication practice. This might be because most practitioners have an arts or social sciences background and so may prefer to work with words and pictures than with numbers. That is certainly the case for myself. However, during the past two years as part of my PhD research at the University of Central Lancashire I have learned how to love numbers and I have been amazed at the insights that can be generated.

Based on my research, I have now developed a simple formula that can be used to check the state of communication in your organisation.

KR_CIPRInside2014_Slide7

This looks complicated, but it is actually very simple.

It is based upon the following four core enablers of organisational engagement: keeping employees informed about important plans (Inf), employee voice (Voice), senior manager communication (SM) and line manager (LM) communication. It rates employee satisfaction for them out of 100 then divides scores by four to generate an overall internal communication index.

 

This is much more useful than a ‘traditional’ employee engagement index that is associated with an employee’s specific job and other factors such as pay and rewards. It also recognises internal communication as a critical enabler of organisational engagement, rather than HR related processes that can be demotivating.

Of course, this is just a starting point. You can also use more advanced research techniques such as correlations and multiple regression analysis. They tell you which specific internal communication activities are most strongly associated with organisational engagement. This can be used for advanced strategic planning where scarce resources can be focused on activities that are likely to have the highest impact on what employees think and feel about your organisation and what they will do to help it achieve its objectives.

This becomes a very practical way to direct time and resources to specific, actionable, communication planning that will make practice more targeted and focused – practice with eyes wide open.

Embracing IC complexity

I was recently asked by PR Moment to consider the greatest challenge facing IC which got me thinking about the complexity of what we do.

Some people say that internal communication is not rocket science.

True. It’s much harder than that.

We can get people to the moon and send a spacecraft to Mars. However, satisfaction with internal communication often remains stubbornly low in many organisations.

Let’s not pretend internal communication is easy when we know it is not. Internal communication is complex. It involves trust, understanding, collaboration and relationship building. There is culture to consider alongside politics, organisational strategy and change. There is not much that is more complicated than that.

And then there is employee engagement. A term that some practitioners think is best avoided because it is tricky.

One of the reasons why internal communication is so rewarding is because it is complex. It demands research, thoughtful analysis, creative problem solving, empathy and an understanding of how effective communication is based on dialogue. Monologue is much easier. Write some ‘messages’, push them down some ‘channels’ and, hey presto you have ‘communicated’ with your internal ‘audience’ (fellow employees actually). Except that, curiously, employee engagement results remain static.

To downgrade internal communication practice to a simple message-channel-audience level is to disrespect employees.  It implies that almost anyone can do internal communication as long as they can write some basic copy. And it leaves organisations failing to fulfil their potential.

Which brings me back to employee engagement.

It is true that there is no simple definition of engagement. In that respect it is like other terms, for example, leadership and culture. However, in my view, taking an employee engagement led perspective offers an exciting future for internal communication practice. It recognises employees as people, not ‘resources’ or ‘advocates’ that need to be put through some tacky ‘engagement’ programme. It gives employees a voice, because they deserve to be heard and they have some great observations that can make a real difference. It includes keeping employees informed in a transparent way, adult-to-adult, not adult-to child as in many cascade programmes. It means that senior managers have to explain and listen at the same time. Give me this any day over firing messages to internal ‘audiences’. Embracing complexity is far more interesting.

Authenticity for the UK

In the wake of the recent European election results it feels like there is some anarchy in the UK at the moment.

As the analysis of Ukip’s rise continues, it looks like authenticity played a part in the voting. A lot of people are saying ‘Ukip talk straight’. Many voters seem to like Nigel Farage’s boozy bolshiness. This contrasts with views of other ‘career’ politicians who talk a lot but say nothing.

We know from the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2014 that trust in CEOs has flat lined whereas trust in employees increased from 47% in 2009 to 62% in 2014. The advice given to CEOs is to communicate clearly and transparently, to tell the truth regardless of how complex or unpopular it is and to engage with employees regularly. All things that people who like Nigel Farage says he does more than other political leaders.

I am not a Ukip supporter and time will tell as to whether Farage is really telling the truth or whether he turns out to be another politician who speaks with forked tongue. However, the lesson for business and political leaders is that voters (and employees) are fed up with corporate sounding communication. If there is a positive outcome from the election, it is that the tide of turgid communication may be turning.

However, some communication development is often required for leaders. Kent Police Commissioner, Ann Barnes, may now be reflecting on her communication style as shown in the Channel 4 ‘Meet the Commissioner’ programme. It was revealed that she did not know her onion-rings, when she failed to explain a concentric circle model of strategy that looked, well just like a concentric circle of rings.

Reviews claim that the Commissioner has been rebuked by rank-and-file officers for making their force a ‘laughing stock’ and she was accused of damaging the reputation of Kent Police. Clearly, she had the right intentions about being transparent and trying to engage with people. However, you can’t blame the documentary makers for highlighting David Brent like examples of excruciating speeches.

This is an example of where communication support and training could have made a real difference to the outcome, not support to ‘polish’ speeches into corporate jargon but to connect with people on a rational and emotional level that encourages genuine dialogue. Transparency, truthfulness and incoherent (or embarrassing) communication is likely to lead to confusion, employee disengagement and media mockery.

Authenticity for the UK
It’s coming sometime…

[With apologies to Johnny Rotten]

Five steps to making the most out of internal social media tools

At PR Academy, we’re running our first new Internal Social Media Masterclass on 18 June. We’re lucky to have the guys from Betterworking, Chris Copland and Nick Crawford, teaching on the course.

I asked them if they could outline their approach – and they provided me with five simple steps towards Betterworking practices:

1. Assess your current landscape, define your vision and objectives. It’s important to understand where you are now and what your ideal ‘future state’ looks like – in terms of organisational outcomes, cultural and behavioural drivers and how technology can facilitate these.

2. Create a clear plan for what you want to achieve, with realistic objectives and timescales so you can play back successes as you get your programme moving. Make sure your enterprise social network strategy is well aligned with wider comms, people and business strategies so users at all levels can see how it fits in and why they should get on board.

3. You’re now ready to ‘activate’ your programme. If it’s an existing platform or you’ve been running a pilot, we recommend initially harnessing existing active users and groups to generate buzz on the platform before inviting new users onto the platform (and lapsed users back). Balance this ‘underground’ data-driven approach with ‘above the line’ comms to raise awareness and build adoption.

4. Early wins are one thing, but sustainable long-term success is the real objective. It’s essential to build on early momentum to establish your enterprise social network as both a core piece of technology, and (more importantly) a way of communicating and working that starts to become ‘how we do things around here’. This is where effective community management is essential to support adoption, identify and play back successes and embed the technology and behaviours.

5. Underpinning everything is the need for analytics and reporting to track performance, identify and share best practices and drive continuous improvement. Not only will senior stakeholders want to know how things are progressing against objectives, but you’ll need up-to-date insights on adoption, usage, key communities and individuals and a range of other metrics to successfully manage and grow your network.

Specialists in helping organisations to get to grips with using social technologies as internal communication and collaboration tools, their proven approach enables organisations to successfully assess, plan, activate, embed and track technology and behaviour change.

Engagement denial cost lives

Some people in internal communication are uncomfortable with the ‘engagement’ word, believing that it confuses the rationale for effective practice.

This may have something to do with a strong journalistic heritage for internal communication that emerged from a study of the history of internal communication that Heather Yaxley and I completed in 2013. This approach is focused on the story and messaging rather than taking an employee-centred perspective where employees have a say in what goes on in the organisation.

The Engaging for Success report and other more academic studies have shown that there is a clear link between internal communication and employee engagement and fewer practitioners now challenge this.

This is important. In fact, it can save lives as a new Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) report indicates. The report, based on studies at eight high performing NHS trusts, shows that employee engagement in the NHS is linked to staff wellbeing, patient satisfaction and clinical outcomes such as mortality.

When it comes to engagement in the NHS, the following key points are highlighted in the IPA report:

  • High performing trusts tend to have a strong set of organisational values, developed in partnership with employees. Trust values should be consistently communicated to employees and mainstreamed throughout the organisation.
  • Senior leadership play an important role in setting the tone at the top of the organisation. They need to be visible and approachable throughout the organisation, and to ensure there is regular and effective communication between senior leaders and employees, using a variety of channels.
  • Line managers are the people who really make the difference to engagement. They need to coach and support employees, helping remove the barriers that get in the way of their teams doing their jobs.
  • There must be a strong employee voice throughout the trust. Employees need to be able both to raise concerns if they have them, to offer suggestions for the improvement of their services, and to be involved in decision-making across the trust as a whole.
  • Finally, given the high level of union membership, partnership working is also important in providing the foundations for employee engagement in the NHS.

 

The role of internal communication is a vital component of employee engagement, especially in communicating values, coaching senior managers and facilitating employee voice. Getting this right in some sectors is quite literally a matter of life or death.

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