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Informal Communication: The Neglected Poor Relation?

Stephen Billing, May 1, 2009

This article was published in the Changing Organisations Newsletter ISSN 1174-5576 Num 4: May 2009.

Informal communications – for example gossip over coffee – are what make or break change efforts. A rumour or a concern can so easily be fanned through informal communication into a wildfire of suspicion and resistance. And yet change leaders often concentrate on formal communications (e.g. written) at the expense of informal channels of communications.

My scientific survey tells me that 75% of projects concentrate on formal communications and ignore informal. 75% of change efforts are reputed to fail. You do the maths.

I really think that sponsors of change projects, project managers of change projects, those involved in change project teams and business unit managers have a big problem on their hands.

Even though you may plan the project well, sign off on the risk and issues registers, conduct steering group meetings that are efficient and get through everything on the agenda, deliver the deliverables on time and within budget, and give progress reports to line managers, these are all inputs, not outcomes.

Of most importance to you as a sponsor of a change project are the outcomes. Line managers are most concerned about the impact of the project on their operations and what they will have to do to make it work (i.e. outcomes for their business unit). Project managers and their teams, by contrast, become more concerned about deliverables, which are inputs. Project management structure and planning drives them in this direction – to have all the papers ready for a steering group meeting, for example.

Immediately you can see the dilemma of inputs versus outcomes. Deliverables (a concept invented as a way of measuring progress towards the desired outcomes, i.e. to measure progress of inputs, especially useful for long term projects) include things like project plans, reports on progress, strategy documents, databases, people recruited, leases secured, and equipment purchased. Unfortunately, success in these things is then taken to equate to the success of the project overall.

Project sponsors, through their close alliances with project managers and their teams, also run the risk of being seduced into prioritising deliverables at the expense of outcomes. By contrast, line managers are seldom influenced this way, perhaps because they often don’t develop the same close associations with these project teams.

From a project sponsor’s point of view however, outcomes can only be measured after the change project is implemented. At the same time, project sponsors play a pivotal part in whether the outcomes of the project are achieved or not. They are the ones with relationships with their senior level peers, who secure and commit resources and who provide real world guidance to their project, programme managers and steering groups.

Your project management effectiveness is one component of the solution. And you surely do need good project management, make no mistake. You also need the right mix of technical skills on the team. But good project management and good technical skills are often seen as the whole story. In reality they are only part of the mix. In order to achieve the outcomes you desire, you also need to make sure that the right range of views have been incorporated into the decision making, and that the shadow conversations have been taken into account.

So one thing that you can do as sponsor of a change project is to keep in touch (perhaps informally, and definitely with an open mind) with the line managers. Project managers would also do well to adopt the same approach.

The grave danger I am warning you of, is that initiatives live or die in the shadow conversations – over the coffee machines, in the smoking rooms, in the cafeteria, in the corridors, at staff drinks, around the water cooler. And project sponsors, project managers, project teams, and human resources people, typically do not spend their time in those places. Blinding flash of the obvious – if informal communications are so critical to the success of change initiatives, why are all the communications efforts concentrated solely on the formal communications channels?

No wonder the failure rate for change projects is reputed to be so high.


Disembodied Employee Engagement

Stephen Billing, October 25, 2008

Chris Rodgers on his blog Informal Coalitions  has picked up on my criticism of the employee engagement industry.

Interestingly he has criticised ”disembodied" culture change programmes and I am struck by his insight that employee engagement is similarly disembodied from the "everyday experience of organizational practice and performance." When he talks about the disembodiment of culture change, he is meaning the way that it is common to treat culture as a thing that is separate from everyday interaction, a thing that is a separate building block of performance that can be managed independently of daily conversation.

The measurement of employee engagement by means of surveys leads to engagement being thought of as a thing independent of human interaction, that can be objectively measured and managed.

To my way of thinking, employee engagement refers only to human interaction and is not something outside of people in organisations interacting with each other. By definition it cannot be outside human interaction. And because we are human beings, we cannot stand outside of human interaction. Managers cannot stand outside of their interactions with their employees and measure them objectively.

So the notion of measuring employee engagement is of doubtful value, particularly if it results in people taking their eye off their results and their interactions with others.

Chris Rodgers suggests that instead, "the ‘real’ engagement task for leaders is twofold:

  • Helping individuals to make sense of everyday events and emerging challenges in the context of their local interactions; and, in the light of this, to take action in ways that contribute to the achievement of local organizational objectives.
  • Doing so in ways that also resonate with individuals’ own aspirations and personal agendas." 

Leadership and Management Matter, Not Engagement Scores

Stephen Billing, October 6, 2008

Concentrate on the basics of good leadership and management, not on your engagement scores.

Previous posts have argued that

  • High employee engagement does not cause high productivity
  • Engagement is becoming a cult and wise leaders will not pay too much attention to it
  • Leaders should concentrate on business results and employee engagement is not a business result, it is an input

Given that I’ve been so critical of measuring employee engagement, what do I advocate instead of engagement scores and action planning to increase your engagement scores?

If your organisation is hooked on engagement scores, then middle managers probably have no choice but to comply and go through the motions of completing the questionnaires. And there is no doubt that there is a lot of political advantage in scoring well in the surveys.

If you are the leader of your organisation, think very carefully about your implementation of engagement surveys. As you know, what you measure is what people focus on. Do you want your people to concentrate on inputs or results? Engagement surveys will make your line managers and  support groups (e.g. HR, admin, finance, legal, communications) focus on inputs because that’s what you are measuring. Engagement surveys will concentrate your line managers on inputs and you risk diverting their attention from the things that matter – your business results.

Unfortunately the magic bullet is not magic and it is not a bullet.

Let the good old basics prevail. It is simple, but it is not easy. Implementation is all. Concentrate on the results you are trying to achieve, keep talking to your people about their performance along with what you are trying to achieve, and your progress together towards your objectives. Concrete progress towards business success stimulates and excites people to keep going in that direction. As they achieve business results, engagement scores will take care of themselves. This is the converse of what the engagement brigade would tell you.

The emperor really has no clothes. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the cult of engagement. Instead, stay focused on your results,  keep in contact with your people as they progress, help them to overcome obstacles where necessary and provide recognition of achievements.

By the way, this is heresy in the prevailing ways of thinking in the public sector in New Zealand.

Comments welcome.


Employee Engagement is not a Business Result

Stephen Billing, October 4, 2008

Previous posts have highlighted that the correlation between employee engagement and productivity does not mean that engagement is the CAUSE of productivity, and that the discourse around engagement is approaching cult status.

A third reason to be cautious of the way employee engagement is being implemented is that the emphasis on employee engagement has led to engagement being seen as an end in itself. This is flawed logic, and it diverts your eye from the important game – the business results you are achieving. High engagement scores are not the same as business results.

Somehow we have leapt from discovering a correlation between engagement and productivity to thinking that engagement is an end in itself. This is not the case. But the measurements on the surveys are causing managers to concentrate on improving their engagement scores, which are then expected to drive productivity. This focus on engagement scores inevitably leads to some manipulation of the scores, but I think the more critical issue is that it leads managers to concentrate on the wrong things.

Any sports coach knows that you have to be aware of the scoreboard, watch the game and practice hard in order to be successful. Concentrating on engagement is like focusing on practice drills, and thinking that because the team is good at passing, or has good parties on Saturday night, that it is winning the game. It is like thinking that because we talk a lot to our team members and they score well in a survey about how well the coach is doing, that they are automatically playing well on Saturday and achieving good business results. In other words, concentrating on engagement tends to make you take your eye off the real results you are trying to achieve as a leader. 

Engagement is a simplistic measure of something that is very complex and is actually impossible to measure. It is an example of scientific method applied to human society and enterprise, a mistake that Kant warned about back in the 1700s.

Being extremely optimistic, engagement scores are only an approximate measure of human reality, and in fact it is not a very good approximation for business purposes because it is a measure of an input, not an outcome.

What should you do instead? Answers in next post.

Don’t worry about your engagement scores.

Instead, let the good old basics prevail. Concentrate on the results you are trying to achieve, keep talking to your people about their performance, what you are trying to achieve, and your progress together towards your objectives. Concrete progress towards business success stimulates and excites people to keep going in that direction. As they achieve business results, engagement will rise.

The emperor really has no clothes. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the cult of engagement. Instead, stay focused on your results,  keep in contact with your people as they progress, help them to overcome obstacles where necessary and provide recognition of achievements. Comments welcome.


The Cult of Employee Engagement

Stephen Billing, October 2, 2008

The fervour about employee engagement seems to be reaching cult status.

In my previous post I pointed out that the correlation between engagement and productivity does not mean that employee engagement CAUSES productivity, and some of the insidious implications of this assumption.

A second reason to be cautious of the engagement movement is that the adherents of engagement are becoming so vehement that one cannot question the concept without being thrown out from the group – this is the hallmark of a cult. In a cult, one cannot question the prevailing dogma and remain a part of the group. The discourse around engagement is approaching this boundary. It reminds me of the early 90s when TQM was the thing – the fervour is very similar.

I know that in my work with my own clients questioning of the concept of employee engagement does not seem to be welcomed. The discourse on employee engagement does not tolerate questioning of the concept – and so no critical thinking about the concept is tolerated.

So, rather than being an ‘engaged’ (pun intended) debate about good leadership in organisations, employee engagement has led to a language with its own jargon (who is your best friend at work?) that cannot be questioned. Managers are becoming engaged (ha ha) in relentlessly pursuing a quest to have the highest engagement scores, and the validity of this quest is not able to be debated. 

I don’t blame them for this – I would do the same thing in a world in which high engagement scores are deemed the measure of success as a measure. 

So engagement is seen as an end in itself – to be successful in engagement of employees is a holy grail, in spite of the evidence of the business units that are mavericks, that do not ‘get in line’ with the rest of the organisation, but nevertheless have high engagement scores.


Engagement Does Not Cause Productivity

Stephen Billing, September 30, 2008

Correlation between engagement and productivity does not mean that engagement CAUSES productivity.

Many organisations are doing culture surveys to measure how employees feel about the organisation. In the public sector it is becoming increasingly common to measure employee "engagement."

This is done on the basis of the claim that engaged employees are more productive employees. This claim is based on research that shows a correlation between employee engagement and productivity.

Leaders of organisations should beware getting too hooked up in the engagement fad for three reasons. The first reason is covered here, the others are the topics of my next posts.

The first reason is that correlation does not mean cause. The correlation between employee engagement and productivity means that responses to a certain questionnaire showed that in the populations that were subject to the research, if employee productivity was high, engagement tended to be high as well. But this does not mean that employee engagement CAUSES high productivity.

I have seen workplaces where the staff love the boss but do not produce much that benefits the organisation. I.e. high engagement, low productivity.

I have also seen business groups that have had high productivity and high engagement but have been pursuing ends that have been in competition or conflict with other parts of the business – this is quite common when a new business unit is established and develops its own strong identity separate from the parent organisation. For example, a new telephone sales channel is established and it ends up competing with the established face to face salespeople for leads and sales.

In case that alone is not enough reason to be cautious about employee engagement, more reasons are coming up in the next two posts.