Engagement — Internal communications, an underestimated stakeholder
With “opinion-based capitalism” rampant, the principal limit on the development of a company is its acceptability, which explains the emphasis now given to purpose and responsibility. But to achieve their fullest force, these qualities need the support of employees – support that derives less from authority than consent.
Engagement has a bad reputation. Because of its association with militancy and with the army, it is often suspected of putting an emphasis on submission. As political parties are in crisis and the army has been professionalised, how can this still be the reference? As companies champion creativity and autonomy, isn’t it virtually an anachronism?
Yet the concept is well defined, associated most with free disposition than submission and generally flexible (between the attentive, the defender and the contributor, there are many types of engaged employees): it is fertile, particularly for internal communications.
Let’s start with definitions. Literature on HR and internal communications sometimes equalises meanings and confuses wellbeing, happiness, satisfaction, motivation, involvement, engagement. Yet according to the definition offered by the French National Association of Human Resources Directors, engagement has a specific meaning: « All actions of employees that go beyond the contribution required by their employment contracts and which strengthen their sentiment of contributing to a joint project that respects the company’s values. »
In other words, engaged employees do MORE than their strict work, they do it for the COMPANY, experiencing a SENTIMENT. The last point is essential. Most authors insist on the fact that engagement is the only state in which employees bring to bear all the dimensions of their individuality: spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical,and, in addition, all dimensions of their preferences: employment, consumption, social responsibility. This is how it differs from satisfaction and motivation (see graphic 1).
And this engagement necessarily results from the free will of employees. More and more of them share the same liberty as consumers and, like them, behave as ego-altruists: their choices are voluntary and reversible, and when they engage it’s as much for themselves as for the company and, going further, society.
This increased freedom and the holistic dimension of the relationship to the company (i.e. taking account of all aspects of personality and preferences) are now shared by many writers. Two examples:
- More weight is given today to intrinsic motivation – where action is carried out solely for the sake of the individual’s interest and pleasure with no external reward – than extrinsic motivation – where action is provoked by a circumstance exterior to the individual (punishment, reward, social pressure, gaining the approval of a third party, etc.).
- Similarly, of the three traditional forms of engagement – affective (emotional identification with and attachment to the company), continuity (belonging stemming from fear or the excessive costs of withdrawal), and normative (loyalty stemming from a sentiment of moral obligation) – the first is clearly by far the most important.
In conclusion, engagement is a voluntary relationship with the company and with its environment.
This state exists even with no planned involvement from the company. We have all met “engaged people” who act as if it were “their” (company (indeed, we often want to involve them “for real” ). They are in cognitive consonance (“my spirituality is in line with the purpose of the company”), want to share its values and to rely on them to connect with their peers or their subordinates and have them grow (emotion), find the project clear and coherent (intellectual) and are bursting with energy (physical).
Should we criticise them? Definitely not, as long as this engagement is to their long-term benefit and that it doesn’t interfere with their integrity. There is a bad form of engagement, a kind of over-engagement akin to addiction and embodied in such prototypes as burn-out or fanaticism. There is also a good form of engagement: Jagdish Parikh talks about “detached involvement” when on gère son support for the company without this being done to the detriment of other social or family activities.
So with this (essential) reservation, there are no regrets that there are engaged people… But do we need more of them? No doubt we do, because a company needs “standard-bearers” to spread its transformation and to dialogue, sometimes argue, with its stakeholders or public opinion (this is the purpose of advocacy). In a “world of individuals”, exemplarity is the principal driver of change.
And in our view, the principal role of internal communications is to generate exemplarity by making those employees who so desire CO-OWNERS OF WHAT IS SHARED – purpose, values, operational project – and giving them the means to co-develop it, update it, sharing and inventing or taking part in experiences which express and feed it.
In any case, this is the zone in which it seems the most legitimate. It is in competition with peers, chief happiness officers and local managers to satisfy, and with HR directors and managemen to motivate, mais but on its route, it only finds executives, the chief executive in particular, with whom to engage. This is implicit in its initial mission of organising dialogue and action between companies and their employees.
So what should we do?
The idea is not to want everyone to show the same level of engagement, but to build a programme around what we call the engagement tunnel. Engagement has to be flexible. So the elements of this tunnel are:
- the levels of engagement offered (see graphic 2)
- the different dimensions of employees’ individuality (spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical) or its preferences (employment, consumption, citizenship).
The tunnel should be able to steer internal communications programmes without losing sight of the cross-cutting principles: collective intelligence, openness to society and other stakeholders and, finally, originality, hoping to win the battle for attention.
The following can serve as inspiration:
- Attention: creation of exclusive interfaces (outside in-house social media flows), fine-tuned coordination between the personalised and the common, openness to the preferences of other stakeholders, ritualisation, phygital.
- Understanding: experiences appealing to all the dimensions of the person, exchanges with stakeholders and openness to changes in economic and social models, microlearning, dialogue with executive power (particularly the CEO).
- Defence : collective writing of a good reputation SWOT analysis and elements of language, advocacy.
- Contribution : co-development of what is held in common (purpose at Orange, values at CNP Assurances, strategic project at Danone), association with the company’s governance (dialogue with the Board of Directors, for instance) and miscellaneous projects through which one can express support for what is held in common (mentoring of young recruits for onboarding, thought leadership on social media, involvement in socially responsible initiatives).
But there remains the question of identifying the levels of engagement and preferences for one approach or the other. The first solution is the “Chinese menu” – offer everything and let people choose – but no doubt that is expensive. The second is to deduce the levels and preferences of volunteering, sourced by HR and an understanding of behavioural data. This is doubtless the more promising solution, even if it has to contend with the double pressures of transparency and legality (in view of GDPR, in particular).
In conclusion, we think that internal communications will regain their importance (the current severe constraints on budgets make it necessary) if they can find a strong intention. Perhaps it doesn’t seem useful enough to executives, because its mission is too vague: developing “an exchange of meaning”, “the quality of internal relations”, “the development of cooperation”, etc.
Another choice would be to assume its instrumental dimension: internal communications, coordinated with external communications and HR, should enable the majority of employees to support what is held in common by the company, all the more easily because they have co-constructed it.