Conversation is the new currency…

Engagement. It’s the word on every self respecting HR professionals lips right now. A multi billion dollar industry has even formed around the subject on the back of eye wateringly large budgets invested by organisations in the pursuance of an “engaged” workforce. Despite it being a business priority, and there being more evidence than you can shake a stick at to show that a highly engaged workforce delivers vastly improved organisational prosperity (take note David MacLeod!), it would seem as elusive to some organisations as the Holy Grail or the end of the proverbial rainbow. The sad fact is that global engagement levels are on the decline.

The problem, in my mind, is that we have lost sight of what we are trying to achieve here. In amongst all the hype and budgets, we seem to have forgotten that Engagement is actually an outcome, not an end in itself. As HR professionals and business leaders in general, we exacerbate the problem with the language we use. Think about it – even at a basic level the word engagement doesn’t chime with employees because it simply isn’t part of the average workers vocabulary. Engagement, like Empowerment is corporate speak. It’s a vanity term.

Empowerment is an outcome. An outcome of things that employees at large DO talk about and value highly – things like trust, honesty, openness and authenticity. These are the things that matter. These are the things that determine my likelihood to “engage’ or be engaged. The reason engagement remains elusive is simply because these things are largely missing from our organisations.

As an example, trust – probably one of the most fundamental things – is rapidly becoming a scarce resource, especially within the context of work. I don’t think its a co-incidence that engagement levels are on the decline at the same time that CEO’s have notched up their worst ever ranking in the Edelman Trust Index. Along with MP’s, CEO’s have suffered the biggest decline in the history of the barometer in terms of people we trust putting them both as the bottom two least trusted groups.

So what can be done? What is the answer? Lets go back to those key fundamentals – Trust, honesty, openness. Look closely and you will see that these are also outcomes. These things come from something else too. And that something else is conversation. Dialogue. The act of sharing views, opinions, feelings and so on. Conversation allows us to navigate our relationship paths. It allows us to assess someone’s potential to be trusted. It allows us to assess someone’s level of honesty. It also allows us to articulate our own sense of these words.

Conversation builds relationships. It builds trust. Ultimately, it builds engagement. Conversation should be the lifeblood of every organisation yet it is painfully absent from most, and has been for a long time. Many are making the problem worse by actively trying to close down the opportunity to converse and HR are at the epicentre of this clampdown. How ironic that the key to unlocking engagement is currently seen in some quarters as the root of all evil.

Social media – or perhaps more appropriately, any technology or intervention that enables real time engagement, conversation and collaboration – presents the biggest opportunity for organisations to unlock business value and find the end of that elusive engagement rainbow. More and more businesses are unlocking this value with customers using the same techniques, but see it as a threat when applied to employees. This is a huge mistake. I understand the fear – it’s no different to when customers first had a voice. Sometimes there are things we don’t want to hear. Things that we know exist but that we don’t want to talk about, or have aired.

In the context of engagement, many organisations have a lot of dirty employee and leadership linen. And they don’t want it aired either. Well, the truth is, its already out there – in the pub at lunchtime, at home in the evening and around the water cooler at work. Simply pretending it’s not happening if you can’t hear it is the thin end of the failure wedge.

Focusing on the negatives will prevent you from seeing the much bigger picture of how organisational effectiveness can be improved if you embrace rather than reject. As an example, this post from Jason Averbook and the interview it refers to articulate the benefits very well.

You want engagement? It starts with conversation. Social media is a great vehicle to make this happen. My advice to HR professionals is to change approach, embrace social technologies and bring these conversations out into the open and, perhaps more importantly, to take part themselves.

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9 thoughts on “Conversation is the new currency…

  1. Yes! I love your point that engagement is the result and outcome of other things and not a specific destination. That it’s a decline in engagement is a symptom and side effect of declines in other things. I, too, get frustrated when organizations think that not seeing acknowledging negative comments makes them somehow not exist. Bring the conversations out into the open. Create transparency, be authentic, Engagement follows. Social media is one way to do that (and I hope more companies follow your suggestion), but such low engagement measures suggest that better communication through any channel would be a plus.

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    • Hi Broc! In the good old days before my mid life crisis, we had the same conversation with companies about customers – pre internet they could ignore negative comments. Even when the internet came along, and customers started making their views heard, they said it would never fly. Oh how things change! Of course, only the most stupid companies or leaders would ignore negativity from customers these days. In fact we now live in a world where we openly encourage it because it will make us a better company/will lead to better products etc etc.

      Employees? different matter. We can ignore those as they dont generate revenue. Or do they…? Fact is that companies can no longer chose to ignore the employee voice and they shouldn’t anyway because all the benefits that come from an open approach to customers are multiplied by a factor of 10 when applied internally.

      And your point about better communication through any channel would be a plus is a good one and where I think Doug is coming from in his comment below.

      Thanks for commenting.

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      • Joe Gerstandt (www.joegerstandt.com) has a great post this morning about companies ignoring diversity and inclusion at their own peril. The line that really struck me was: “Most organizations are in the process of dying, they just can’t see it because they generated a profit yesterday.” I think that’s right at the heart of what you’re saying. Companies got away with ignoring or downplaying employee’s voices yesterday and still made a profit. It worked yesterday, but for how much longer?

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      • Hi Broc – thanks for putting me onto Joe’s post – i had missed it! And you are right – it is exactly at the heart of what I am saying. The line you highlight is also at the heart of what Jim Collins has been saying for a long time – that Good is the enemy of Great. Thanks for putting me onto the post.

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  3. Hi Gareth – some interesting and useful observations and links here, I wonder if the reputational decline of CEOs is as much to do with burgeoning exec pay as anything else? How much is enough?

    I think you’ve weakened an interesting piece with your assertion that conversation is somehow a new currency. Long before social media ever existed and (insert religious being of choice here) willing, long after too – conversation will be vital. It is indeed a currency older than the Roman Sestersi (sp – I blame Asterix). The fag break, the lunch break, the hello on the way into work, the goodbye on the way out – all these and more existed afore ye twitter and ye olde Facebookke

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    • Burgeoning pay packets? You think?! Obviously there is no such thing as enough – unless you are a rank and file employee 😉

      Indeed you are right Doug, nothing new about conversation. But to many organisations its a lost art – its not new but in so many places it no longer exists, or actually, its not allowed. And I agree, it will outlast whatever wheeze we come up with, be it social media or god forbid, going back to talking to each other again.

      I dont think im actually saying that Conversation is new, or that Social Media is the answer to bringing back conversation to organisations. But social media, whether we like it or not, has given people the platform to communicate widely, and converse, on their own terms, irrespective of what the organisation powers that be think. Of course, we could always do that, but sometimes it takes a shift or something to re engergise it.

      Before collaboration platforms and social media, the conversation was confined to the fag break, the watercooler, the coffee machine and all the places you mention which whilst completely valid, could often be ignored. Only the bravest or the most passionate would often speak out whilst the majority could be ignored. In these social times, you cant ignore it and also a much wider group have a voice.

      The point of what I am saying though is that, notwithstanding any of that, allowing free flowing, honest, open conversation in the organisation, no matter how you do it (driven by technology or just good old fag break chat) presents the biggest opportunity for organisations.

      Its good to talk 😉

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