Is employee engagement the great distraction for internal communication teams?

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Great distraction employee alignment

This year I have seen more conversations about the difference between internal communication and employee engagement than ever before. The difference is that we seem to be shining a light on the misdirection for internal communication that has happened as a result of the employee engagement focus for leaders in recent years.

As I continue to learn more about the world of work, my thinking is shifting into exploring the importance of alignment inside organisations. And when I talk about alignment I’m talking about alignment to the organisational strategy. I believe that employee alignment should be the focus for internal communicators, rather than employee engagement. I wanted to test this belief, so I asked my LinkedIn community for their thoughts, and their contribution has been incredibly helpful in shaping my thinking even further.

In the poll, 68% said that we should focus on employee alignment rather than employee engagement. This is in no way a landslide win for the alignment case and the comments provide some great insight into the thinking around where things are and where they might need to go.

“Engagement is an individual level phenomenon, alignment is mostly a social phenomenon, on the level of a team or even the entire organisation.” This comment from internal and communication strategist, Marc do Amaral, gives us cause to think more about the specifics around engagement. We have shifted to looking at it as a group because of engagement scores, but it is something that is incredibly individual.

Leadership strategist and coach, Lee Griffith, commented “I see engagement as an outcome AND an output, and can be quite multifaceted and complex. Alignment is a critical outcome (but not output!) too that needs to be monitored and measured. I often think of it as alignment is reached through engagement and therefore it always is closely connected to strategy and vision.”

In my LinkedIn post, I suggested that engagement is an output of internal communication. This prompted some discussion about the difference between an output and an outcome and to be honest, I hadn’t really considered that difference when I wrote the post. I was thinking that engagement is what happens as a result of many things, including good internal communication.

Lee commented that alignment is reached through engagement, but I’d argue it’s the other way round. I think you must be aligned to the organisational strategy, all going in the same direction to then become engaged. This before or after debate has prompted deeper thinking for me on the linear approach to engagement that leads to a great experience but that’s another blog post – I’m still thinking and scribbling about that one!

There were several comments from people around alignment not being the right word:

“I always use the word connection.”

“Alignment can be perceived in too many different ways – there are some negative connotations associated with the word so I would personally steer clear.”

“Alignment doesn’t feel right and I am not sure what the right word is.”

“Alignment sounds a bit like coercion to me – ‘our way or the highway’.”

“Alignment feels too ‘hard’ to me. Like if a member of the team is out of alignment there’s something wrong with them.”

I tend to agree that it does feel harsh, but I wonder if that’s because it can feel uncomfortable talking about people doing what you need them to do for the organisation to succeed. It’s uncomfortable to make it sound that cold when we spend so much time talking about how to make it purposeful and have meaning.

Further debate around terminology included suggestions for employee fulfilment or employee relations as alternatives to employee engagement. Although, I’m not sure either of these feels correct from a business perspective.

Tracy Darchini, Director of Communications, made the incredibly important point that we can be engaged with the content and communication and engaged with work, but that they are two different things that are often confused. I wonder if this is where the crossover of internal communication and employee engagement has happened. Have we confused engagement with content with overall engagement with the organisation and blurred the measurement of these things to become one? At the same time, we do continue to use internal communication, employee engagement and employee experience interchangeably – this was even demonstrated in the comments on the post.

Coming back to alignment, it’s important to note that alignment isn’t necessarily agreement. As Lindsay Uittenbogaard, Director, says, “it’s an exploration of options and constructive challenge that leads to consensus on the way forward. It’s about the meaning that is shared between people rather than understood by different people in different ways. It’s cognitive and behavioural.”

This bring us back to the fact that engagement is individual and alignment is more about the social or group.

What is always important is that we get to the root cause of broader engagement issues. Internal communications manager, Aoife Casson made the point early on in the thread: “I guess that it depends on the needs of the organisation and the cause of low engagement. It could be lack of alignment (in which case definitely focus on that!) or it could be something else like a toxic culture or ineffective communications channels.”

We always get to the root cause of issues as a consultancy, so we are fixing things for the long term. It’s the basis for The Field Model. If there are engagement issues, we need to get to the root cause of those but my hypothesis at the moment is that alignment is a major factor that hasn’t been explored enough by internal communicators.

Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog, or listen to this short podcast to find out more about The Field Model.

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