Conversation: A Means of Leveraging Employee Engagement and Business



Laura Handrick
09/14/2009

Did you know that if you type in the word "conversation" in the book search section of Amazon.com, it turns up 586,000 results?

It's surprising that in these tough economic times, the one thing human resources, management and leaders forget to do is talk with their employees. Business leaders, fretting over lower revenues and a declining customer base, may not be sure what to say. But changing business conditions shouldn’t deter leaders from having conversations with their employees. In fact, ongoing dialog about the business will help reduce employee anxiety and leverage employee engagement. Even if your business isn’t impacted by the current economic crisis, leaders may need to be sensitive to the ripple effect the economy is having on employees. People are scared. Some are even losing sleep at night while cutting up their credit cards and hoping they don’t join the ranks of the unemployed or homeless.

Speak the Truth

Perhaps you don't know the truth about the future of your business or the company. It’s OK for leaders to acknowledge to their staff that they don't know what's going to happen next. That’s real. In fact, "not knowing" might be the truth each manager or leader needs to share. Employees respect leaders who are honest.

Human resources can provide information to leaders such as speaking tips, meeting guides or real-time updates so leaders can share what is going on in the business, such as information about customers, historical sales, service trends or even the local economy. Encourage leaders to increase their dialog with employees.

Key initiatives for creating dialogue that will leverage employee engagement include:

1. Face-to-Face communication: Human resources experts know that communication and feedback improve employee engagement and morale. But how does an organization communicate when it’s in a battle against a waning customer base or fierce competition? Face-to-face. Leaders may complain that they’re not in control of external forces. But leaders are in control of the conversations they choose to have that can influence the hearts and minds of their workers—by listening and being available to answer questions. When employees fully understand what is happening in the business—even if leaders don’t exactly know and are scared as well—at least they will feel like they are part of the business. They may even have ideas to improve it.

2. Just Ask: Leaders should find time when the phone isn't ringing, or schedule short updates at the start, middle or end of the day to find out what's on the minds of their staff. Are employees aware of key changes affecting the business? Do they have concerns? Do they have ideas that could spark new business development, a new service or new products? Leaders don’t need to limit conversations to the office staff. Talk to customers too. What do they think? What do they need? What do they wish the company knew about them? Customers and employees have ideas, and even if the conversation doesn't bring cash into the coffers today, the dialog will build relationships that may pay dividends in the future.

3. Listen: Leaders need to keep their ears, their minds and their office doors open. The very future of the organization may well depend on the creative resources of employees or customers who may be able to clearly see a path they’ve overlooked. Why not tap into every brain within the company? When business was booming, people may not have spoken up. But now that leaders are listening, assuming they really are listening, employees might share a spark to help the company see its way through the current economic crisis. So once leaders start asking for input, they need to let employees talk. This dialog will help staff feel more part of the solutions and you will notice a rise in employee engagement levels.

4. Be Creative: It's not a surprise that the recent "Beer Summit" struck a cord across the United States. Politics aside, we intuitively know that the best way to work through an issue with someone is often over a meal or a drink. Why not encourage leaders to take their team out for ice cream? Or host a customer appreciation day. Getting out of the office might help ease the tension and allow employees to feel safe sharing ideas. Don’t allow leaders be lazy. Open dialog and transparency doesn’t occur via e-mail. It's a person-to-person dialog. Encourage managers to meet offsite so employees know their leaders are interested in their point of view.

5. Repeat: Until you're back in the black, keep the conversation open. The business world has changed, and unless you have lived through another economic cycle like this, each day is new and different. Twitter, Facebook and Web 2.0 didn’t exist during the last major recession. All are used for conversations. Leaders don't have all the answers, but together, they and their team can share thoughts, iterate and make it through the current economic crisis. The company may even emerge stronger for having talked more and built trust while times were difficult.

In a nutshell, keep the channels of communication open, along with the office doors. And be open to ideas from employees and customers alike. By providing venues and resources for conversations, your business and your leaders might just come through this economic downturn wiser and stronger, with loyalty built on the back of the employee and customer commitment earned through a conversation.