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Like one-handed clapping

I always get a chuckle when clients tell me, “What we need around here is more two-way communication.” I sometimes ask them, “What other kind is there?”

The typical response is something like, “You know – all the memos, e-mails, presentations, announcements, policies, instructions, directives – one-way stuff like that.” To which I reply, “Oh, you mean message distribution. My mistake. I thought you were talking about communication.”

It’s a bit cheeky, but it usually gets people’s attention. Truth be told, most people operate with the misguided notion that when they send out messages, they’re actually communicating. Just listen to how frequently people use the word “communicate” as a transitive verb, and you get the picture. For example, “As soon as we get the strategic plan done, we need to communicate it TO employees.” Fact is, the only legitimate way to communicate is WITH someone, not TO them.

Connectivity is Key
Why is that distinction so crucial? Organizations must shift away from the fundamentally flawed notion that sending out messages – however well crafted – is the same as communicating. Otherwise it’s impossible to achieve the connectivity that the “central nervous system” of organizational communication should be designed to provide.

That is not an off-handed metaphor. In day-to-day operation, an organization is similar to the human body. If the signals that travel throughout the “body” are blocked or distorted, its ability to function is diminished. What’s more, those signals have to travel in all directions to maintain systemic health, not just top down. In a truly healthy organization – just like a healthy body – “information” flows up, down and sideways.

Building on that analogy, effective employee engagement requires a shift in communication from diatribe to dialogue, from conversion to conversation, from persuasion to acceptance, from influence to integration, from crafting messages to building relationships … from doing it TO ‘em to doing it WITH ‘em.

Don’t Leave it to the Professionals
Making that shift requires a basic change in mindset. Organizations must embrace the counterintuitive realization that communication is too important to be left solely in the hands of professional communicators.

Here’s why. Most of the communication that takes place in organizations has little to do with the messages that communicators create and the media they manage. It’s the day-to-day, minute-by-minute exchange of information between every employee that dictates how well an organization performs.

Based on that premise, the top priority of professional communicators should be to help equip everyone in the organization to handle that daily communication effectively. It’s also their responsibility to develop and imbed systems, tools and processes that provide the infrastructure for communication to serve effectively as the central nervous system of the organization, rather than a bullhorn for management messages and mandates.

Making the shift also requires rethinking the qualities of a “great communicator.” Most people think it’s about being articulate, inspiring, clear, confident, a great presenter and public speaker, etc. They believe it’s about the ability to say the right things in the right way at the right time. Rarely do I hear anyone say the most important quality is to be a great listener.

Use Your Ears More than Your Mouth
Most people can learn to be a good message sender with enough training. What epitomizes the truly great communicators is their ability to LISTEN – to deeply, profoundly, empathetically HEAR what people have to say. Along with that, it requires humility, openness, empathy, caring, respect, and similar qualities that seldom jump to mind when we think of great leaders.

There’s an old adage that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason – we’re supposed to listen twice as much as we talk. The way I look at it, one-way communication is an oxymoron. It’s like one-handed clapping. You may move the air around, but you rarely make a connection. Bottom line – it’s pointless.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” One good way to make sure it does take place is to stop sending messages and start making connections.

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Beyond the title trap.

Have you ever wondered about the upper limits of what employees could contribute to the success of an organization given the right conditions?  I was reminded recently of what people are eager and able to do from a wonderful story on CBS Sunday Morning.  Lots of companies spout bromides and platitudes about how “open” they are to people talking initiative and trying out new ideas.  But in the end, employees are generally defined by their titles and job descriptions, and they’re rewarded mainly for meeting prescribed expectations.

Depending on the organizational culture, the response to the things people do outside of those constraints varies widely from appreciation to aggravation and a range of reactions in between.   Rarely are employees encouraged and supported in making a routine habit of thinking and working every day beyond the boundaries of what they were hired to do.  In most workplaces, job one is job done.

In that kind of climate, organizations lose out in two ways.  First, it diminishes the potential value that employees can add to the company’s performance and results.  Pretty simple.  Second, it stifles the inherent drive and desire in every human being to grow, to contribute in meaningful ways and to have a measure of control over their lives.  In short, it cuts the heart out of employee engagement.

Here are two vivid examples that make the point – one bad, one good.

Bound by What’s Billable

I was talking to a manager in a professional services firm recently about the value of getting employees tuned in, turned on and eager to go the extra mile – my definition of employee engagement.  She said they do good work and management is always open to improvement suggestions, but she admitted that people don’t exert much effort beyond what they’re expected to do.

I asked her about their policy on billable hours.  “Naturally, they have to be 100% billable, just like everyone else in our business,” she replied.  So I asked her when do people have the time to think about fresh ideas and explore ways to improve how they do their work. “Oh, they have to do that on their own time,” she said. It didn’t take her long to see the blatant disconnect between the “say” and the “do.”

Supporting the Urge to Excel

On the flipside is the inspiring and heartwarming story from another organization that was featured in a recent episode of CBS SundayMorning.  This short 2:42 story focuses on Charles Clark, a high school custodian in Euless, Texas.  He clearly is going the extra mile above and beyond his job description, making a difference in the lives of students in ways that typically would be totally unexpected.  While his special contributions are noteworthy, an understated pivotal point of the story is how the school’s administration endorses and supports that kind of initiative.

You see, the truth is almost every human being wants to make meaningful contributions – it’s part of our nature.  Employees are eager and able to do astonishing things far beyond their titles and duties. Another part of human instinct, though, is caution.  If we step outside the boundaries of expectations and we get chastised for wandering too far, most people shut down in a hurry.  So, yeah, let’s be sure to recognize employees for their special efforts, but let’s also herald the leaders who foster the kind of culture where exceptional contributions from all employees can flourish.

If you’re looking for a proven tool to help make continuous improvement part of the everyday work routine for all employees, take a look at our ImaginAction System.  Give us a call at 314-664-6497, and we’ll tell you more about it.

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More holiday magic.

Last year, I posted an Inside Out column (An engagement miracle.) with a link to a video clip about the Westjet Christmas “miracle” that got more than 64 million YouTube views worldwide. I got such a wonderful response from the readers of this column that I decided to post it again this year – and it comes with a bonus! For this holiday season, Westjet decided to repeat their generosity, but with a twist. Instead of gifting passengers on their flights, they chose to reach out to a poor community in the Dominican Republic, which is one of the countries they serve. Here’s the link to this year’s heartwarming event.

Here is a copy of last year’s post:

An engagement “miracle.”

T’was the night before Christmas. That timeless phrase tells true believers they are about to hear one of the most beloved holiday poems of all time.  It first appeared in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823.  Recently, it took on fresh new meaning with a Christmas “miracle” that was performed by employees of the Canadian airline WestJet for passengers on two of their flights.

An engagement miracle.
The story has been captured in a wonderful 5-minute video clip that is a must-see for everyone who’s grown a bit cynical about the capacity for any business to show it has a warm heart, a creative spirit and a sense of humor.  It’s also a refreshing reminder that truly compelling marketing requires effective “story-doing” and “story-listening” along with well-crafted “story-telling” if you want to foster greater employee engagement and customer loyalty over the long haul.  When it’s done right, the story tells itself – as the 27+ million YouTube views attest.
On the Landes & Associates website home page, we have a couple of personally meaningful phrases:
  • Aligning marketing communications with employee engagement
  • Creating great organizations where people love to work, and customers love doing business
Those two phrases go hand-in-hand, and they speak to our belief that the ultimate definition of marketing is “relationship building” – inside and out.  It goes beyond the typical notion that it’s mainly about slick advertising campaigns driven by persuasion, positioning and targeted messaging.  Those are important tools, but with thoughtful “story-doing” and “story-listening” they can leveraged to produce far greater impact.
Some cynics have scoffed at the WestJet “miracle” as a cheap publicity stunt.  Perhaps, but take a look at the faces of the people in the clip, including the WestJet employees, especially the one at 4:29.  From a financial investment standpoint, it was indeed cheap – it cost WestJet about $30,000.  But seeing the expressions of the passengers and employees who served them is priceless.
Have a blessed and joyful holiday season!

Putting the right people first.

I read an eye-opening article recently about a well-intentioned, but misguided head of a large company. He had a distorted view of what matters most when it comes to putting people first. It was written for the St. Louis Business Journal by Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller. Bob’s company is widely regarded as a corporate pace-setter in the policies and practices that underlie its “culture of care and compassion.”

Who Are the “Right” People?
The company chieftain had heard Bob talk about his personal passion, Truly Human Leadership. Later, the guy sought Bob out to talk about his speech. At one point in the conversation, Bob asked the guy what he felt good about in his life. He replied that he was especially proud of the minority athletic scholarship program he underwrites. While admirable, Bob challenged the man by asking how many people the program supports each year. The guy said about six to eight. Then Bob asked him how many employees he had in his company. Turns out there are about a hundred thousand.

You can see where this story is going. Bob asked him one more pointed question. “What you’re telling me is that you feel good about helping six or eight people outside your company, but the hundred thousand people who work for you every day, whose life and joy depend on the way they’re treated, they’re simply a means to achieve your wealth?”

Reaching In Before Reaching Out
After three hours of conversation, the guy conceded the point. The article goes on to explain that business leaders like him would do well to focus more heavily on their “most important social responsibility” – the people inside the company. Bob put it this way in his article. “As leaders, the greatest act of charity is to care for our people. Corporate social responsibility begins inside the walls of our organizations.”

Barry-Wehmiller puts its money where its mouth is with an array of policies, practices and programs that tell employees unequivocally they come first above all else. The not so surprising upshot of that business imperative can be seen in research they’ve done with their employees. The data show that their caring culture has produced a “heightened sense of altruism, or philanthropy” among 70-plus percent of the workforce.

If Customers Are Your Priority…Then Put Employees First
I’ve written for years in this column, in articles and books about “The Engagement Imperative.” Simply put, it’s based on the principle that there is an inherent connection between “people-first” systems, policies and practices and the way employees relate to customers. As Bob’s article illustrates, it’s also apparent that “care and compassion” inside the organization naturally leads to an elevated sense of social responsibility outside the organization.

One of the best business books ever written on that subject is “The Customer Comes Second.” Its colorful subtitle captures the book’s main premise – “Put Your People First, and Watch ‘Em Kick Butt.” The author is Hal Rosenbluth, CEO of Rosenbluth International, one of the world’s most successful travel companies.

I often cite a passage from his book that gets to the heart of his philosophy for business success: “Only when people know what it feels like to be first in someone else’s eyes can they sincerely share that feeling with others. We’re not saying choose your people over your customers. We’re saying focus on your people first because of your customers. That way, everybody wins.”

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An obsession for improvement.

I’ve been a baseball nut ever since I was a kid. So it’s great living in the hometown of the St. Louis Cardinals, the second winningest team in baseball history. They make the playoffs virtually every year, and their presence permeates life in the region from April to October. Every game draws a virtual sell-out crowd that energizes the home team and makes most opponents green with envy.

Lots of factors have contributed to the team’s phenomenal success over the years, and you can get a lot of arguments about what’s most important. Recently, I came across a great video clip that highlights one of those factors, and it applies to businesses as well as baseball teams.

Be Obsessed with Getting Better
It’s captured in an entertaining 11-minute video clip featuring Dr. Jason Selk, who was hired in 2006 as a mental fitness coach for the Cardinals.

Selk weaves an engaging tale of his first day on the job when then manager Tony LaRussa told him sternly that he had 10 minutes to talk with the team. Somewhat shaken but remaining undaunted, he managed to step up to the proverbial plate and turn those 10 minutes into a 6-year career.

During the few fateful minutes when he was “trying out for the team,” Selk was struck by what he saw as a key to their success. What he observed is true for every successful company striving to create an organization where people love to work and customers love doing business. He calls it an obsession for improvement – a passion to learn every minute, to soak in everything you can and make adjustments every step along the way every day all the time.

Minor Improvements – Major Impact
Teams like that – whether it’s baseball or business – know that success isn’t about the big things, the home runs. It’s more about “small-ball,” the base hits and all the little things that add up to success over time. Sure, home runs are exciting, and they sometimes win a game. But the teams that win a 162-game season rarely hit the most home runs.

Here are some revealing stats to prove the point. There are 30 teams in major league baseball. In 2013, the Cardinals were 27th on that list in home runs – and they missed winning the World Series against Boston by one game. This year, the Cardinals made it to the National League Championship series, and they finished 29th in home runs.

Base Hits Beat Homeruns Over Time
That same basic philosophy is at the heart of our ImaginAction System – a tool for getting employees deeply engaged in systematic continuous improvement. Traditional suggestion programs promote the notion that “bigger is better” – the home run syndrome. And guess what? That kind of approach encourages employees to pass right by all the “base hits” that add up to winning in the long run.

The ImaginAction System starts with the timeless principle that “it’s the little things that count.” It’s designed to focus on the constant day-to-day opportunities for improvement that everyone can identify and employees have control over. And guess what? When the system fosters lots of little improvements, it also generates more big ones.

That’s just one of the distinctive features of the ImaginAction System, and the results are compelling. The system typically generates 3-5 times the number of implemented improvements over the traditional suggestion program. It also increases the annual participation rate from the typical 10%-15% of employees to more than 60%.

Regardless of what approach you use, don’t let your organization get caught in the “home run trap.” Always remember, the key to winning in the long run is systematic small-ball woven throughout day-to-day operations rooted in an obsession for continuous improvement.

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Want to learn more about a systemic approach to creating an “obsession for improvement?” Check out our free webinar. Then give us a call and we’ll show you how to get employees tuned in, turned on and eager to go above and beyond.

Standing up for trust.

Do you ever wonder how you know for sure when you’re hitting the mark with employee engagement? Sure, you can look at things like employee survey scores, KPIs and lots of other metrics – and that’s important. But aside from the numbers, how can you tell when you’re getting to the very heart of employee engagement?

When you strip everything else away, the over-the-top, extra-mile performance that most organizations crave from their employees is rooted in people’s emotions. It comes from the heart more than the head, and when you’re talking about the heart of engagement, the level of trust and loyalty in an organization are pretty compelling indicators. But how do you measure those vital qualities?

You can get some sense of it from engagement surveys, but few things make the point more powerfully than a recent event where employees stood up for a beleaguered leader that they love and respect.

A few weeks ago, CBS Sunday Morning ran a story on the CEO of Market Basket, who found himself on the outside looking in following a family tussle for the reins to the company’s leadership. The way employees responded sounds almost like something out of a business fairy tale. But it really happened, and the lessons from that story – along with others like Whole Foods and Radio Flyer captured in this enlightening 8-minute clip – offer a shining example of what the heart of employee engagement looks like … without needing to check on a single number.

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Race car drivers and politicians.

I read a great bumper sticker the other day that makes a potent point about the importance of transparency. “Politicians should dress like race car drivers. That way, we’d know who their corporate sponsors are.” Frankly, few people expect politicians to tell the unvarnished truth – Americans would have a collective coronary if they did. But there still may be hope for the business world to be more real, largely because the stakes are high enough to make it worth their while to be more authentic and transparent.

Think you’re fooling people? Think again.
Not so many years ago, the direction that a lot of communication professionals got from senior management could be summed up like this: “Your job is to sanitize the bad news and glamorize the good news.” There may have been a time when employees – and even the public – would take “sanitized and glamorized” corporate mumbo-jumbo as gospel. Not anymore. Anything that smacks of spinning or sketchy denial is immediately suspect. What’s more, employees and customers alike are more bullish about calling companies on their communication crap these days.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that shabby or shady communication is a leading cause of missteps, mistrust and misunderstandings in organizations. For the skeptic, there are legions of research reports and case studies to support that assertion. It all points to the same basic communication premise: If you can’t be open and honest with customers and employees, how can you expect to gain their trust?

The “whys” have it.
Here are other reasons to put transparency at the top of the corporate communication agenda:
  • Problems are solved faster
  • Decisions are made sooner
  • Work is done quicker
  • Costs are controlled better
  • Relationships are more real
  • Performance levels are higher
  • Teams are easier to build and sustain
  • Employees are less skeptical and cynical

The classic slippery slope
One of my pet peeves when it comes to evasive communication is the traditional announcement that thousands of employees are being let go, discretely buried in a massive missive detailing a new direction that will “optimize corporate performance.” A recent internal announcement by one of America’s best known companies is a case in point.

The announcement included oodles and gobs about how smart the company is, but there’s an old adage that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Buried three-fourths of the way into the 1,000-word tome is the notice that 12,500 people will be let go over the next year as part of this strategic business move. The subsequent “caring” comment consisted of one sentence: “These decisions are difficult for the team, and we plan to support departing team members with severance benefits.”

Seriously? That’s it? I’d love to hear the justification for that clipped consolation comment beyond the desire to downplay the impact on people and head off the critics. Part of me likes to think that the guy who wrote it didn’t even bother to consult a communication professional who understands how to strike the right balance between context and compassion. The hopeful side of me wants to believe that other types of communication took place with employees to answer the big questions on their minds, like “Am I going to keep my job?”… “What’s going to happen to me?”… “Where will I go?” – and other similar “WIIFM”s. Somehow, I doubt it.

Put Your Transparency to the Test
So what does transparency look like?

  • Stop trying to sound like a boardroom brainiac. Talk straight and talk first about the things that matter most to employees and customers, not financial analysts.
  • Open the books to employees. Show them the critical numbers that are relevant to business outcomes, and help them understand how their day-to-day work impacts those numbers.
  • Replace one-way information distribution with interactive conversations that foster an open dialogue.
  • Challenge your policies about what information you’re willing to make available to employees so it’s as close as possible to what one Baldrige Award winning company decided on – “no secrets.”
  • Use the “friends and family test” when you’re communicating with employees. Ask yourself if your spouse, your kids, your parents, your grandparents, or your friends and neighbors would understand – and believe – what you’re saying.
  • Kill the jargon, and remember the quote by the renowned business consultant, Warren Bennis, who said, “The use of buzzwords anesthetizes you to the truth.” If your communication doesn’t sound like the kind of conversation you’d have with someone across the table, it’s probably littered with blah-blah corp-speak.

In the end, transparency comes down to a question of credibility. So next time you’re deciding how open to be with key stakeholders, ask yourself this question: Would you rather have people think of management as a race car driver or a politician?

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Employee Engagement Webinar

Your team is good but there is unmet potential. Something is missing.

Hands holding rope forming a heart with white space for textEverywhere you turn in the world of employee performance the word ENGAGEMENT is popping up. In the wake of the economic downturn, organizations are realizing that investing in employee engagement is more than a nice thing to do. It’s good business.

Problem is, there’s confusion about employee engagement; how to do it effectively and sustain it?

Landes & Associates Presents:
Getting to the Heart of Employee Engagement

Watch this 90-minute webinar and you’ll take away:

• A deeper understanding of how engagement strengthens the bottom line
• Ways to propel the “human rocket” of performance
• How to communicate in a way that makes a genuine connection with employees
• An effective alternative to employee suggestion programs
• A proven method for sharing organizational data to empower employees
• Ways to close gaps between the culture you have and the one you want

Who should watch?

Anyone who is passionate or empowered to improve employee engagement or communications within your organization – whether you are in Human Resources, Talent Management, Communications, Training, Operations, or Lean Processes.

Helping the heart grow fonder

Many years ago, someone dissuaded me from the time-worn notion that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  Instead, the person implored, “Absence is to the heart what wind is to fire. A little bit will fan the flame even brighter.  Too much will put it out.”

Following that wisdom, I occasionally like to revisit my definition for employee engagement which is really about the heart. It’s an emotional connection that gets employees tuned in, turned on and eager to go the extra mile.  That’s actually a simplified variation of the definition that The Conference Board coined in 2006, which included the now omnipresent term, “discretionary effort.”

Recently, a number of pundits have been challenging that definition along with others that have emerged over time.  They’re calling for a more relevant meaning that everyone can align around – and ironically offering yet another definition to the burgeoning engagement lexicon.

Not surprisingly, we’re also seeing an increasing array of methods that supposedly are the “real” keys to getting employees to go that extra mile.  Many times when I ask people what kind of engagement efforts they’re using, I get a litany of rewards and recognition activities focusing on perks, parties and novel employee benefits. Nothing wrong with that, but it misses the point about the necessity for systemic, day-to-day systems and processes that get to proven extra effort drivers for most employees.

Setting aside the debate about how to define engagement and all the tools and techniques for creating it, here’s an elemental truth about human beings in the workplace.  Extra effort makes a difference, and people simply won’t go the proverbial “extra mile” unless they feel some kind of “emotional connection.”  End of story. It’s about the heart. They’ll show up to work – most of them will most of the time.  They’ll do what’s expected of them – most of them will most of the time.  And they’ll pick up their check at the end of the pay period – all of them will all of the time.

But going the extra mile? More money can get you some of it – but there’s a limit to how far it will go and how long it will work. If you really want to blast off with your team, you need to tap into the deep inner core of imagination and free will of people in the workplace. Those innate traits differentiate human beings most significantly from all other living creatures on the planet – and they are the forces that propel people to towering heights of achievement. I delve into that idea extensively in my book, Getting to the Heart of Employee Engagement.

In an article published in the June issue of PRSA Tactics, I talk about some of the keys to making the emotional connection that generates extra effort – along with a bit of interesting history behind the “engagement movement” going back to the early 1980s.

I invite you to take a short trip down engagement lane … and let me know if your heart grows a bit fonder for the power and potential of people in the workplace.

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ImaginAction System

Would you like to think outside the suggestion box, and implement a proven high-impact employee improvement process?

Free Continuous Improvement GuideFor an overview of how the ImaginAction System can help you transform your employee suggestion process, download our free continuous improvement guide.

With the Continuous Improvement System by Landes & Associates, you can replace the traps of traditional suggestion programs with tools and techniques that get employees engaged in taking continuous action to make improvements – fast and often.

Achieving sustainable competitive advantage in any business requires a systematic process for leveraging the skills and knowledge of every employee to identify and implement improvements on a continuous basis. The ImaginAction System is modeled after a method that has been implemented successfully by numerous Baldrige National Quality Award winners.

Want to know more? Download the Continuous Improvement System Brochure