Special: Why this budget is an employee engagement nightmare and how leaders can make it better

An open letter to leaders and communicators in the Australian Public Service and Government Agencies

It may seem frivolous to talk about employee engagement while a razor hangs over 16000 to 25000 people’s jobs*.

There are around a quarter of a million people within the public service going to work today wondering what their future will be following the first Federal Budget to be delivered under the new Government. They will be wondering whether they are part of the “pain with a purpose” that the Budget is set to administer. If not them, their colleagues. If not their colleagues, those in another agency to be merged, subsumed or integrated.

Poor communication during change has a substantial negative impact on employee engagement and consequently on productivity, performance and culture. Uncertainty is crippling.

Every time an employee hears something fundamental about their role from outside their organisation, trust is destroyed. For workers in the public service or other agencies, where the debate about jobs, roles and size is played out in public, this is a difficult time (It is also one that occurs to a greater or lesser extent each budget or electoral cycle.)

“Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment.” – Dale Carnegie

Disruption disrupts

Major change – transformational change such as redefining the scope and remit of an agency, or bringing together separate departments – in the short term creates a range of predictable responses and an accompanying downturn in productivity.

Study after study** about the negative impacts demonstrate that a number of conditions are a guarantee of reduced trust and disengagement:

  • Creating a high level of ambiguity by referencing major change without specific details
  • Publishing information externally on change that impacts individuals publicly before communicating directly with them
  • Providing no opportunities for input to change or its implementation
  • Not gathering feedback
  • Gathering feedback or research and not acknowledging the findings (even if the findings cannot be acted on it is key to be transparent)
  • Making ‘big bang’ announcements that are not supported with ongoing change and communication initiatives.

The news isn’t all bad

Significant change is an opportunity to maintain and increase engagement. The approaches to implementing major changes – even where it requires cuts – can provide a catalyst for the kinds of leadership and communication that build trust and strengthen the capacity for change. Towers Watson have shown how organisations that get this right see benefits in productivity, trust and capability.

It is possible to communicate in a way that is humanistic and respects employees. A study by Hewitt of change and engagement during the GFC indicated that in those companies where managers were able to explain the context of the tough decisions, engagement was retained or even increased.

A leaner public service will require higher levels of engagement to deliver ‘more with less.’ Yet, unless these changes are led effectively with meaningful employee communication, the support of the employees required to do the work will be eroded at exactly the time they will be needed the most.

In the UK, the recession, and the bite on business and government triggered the Macleod Report, an investigation into the value of employee engagement in the workplace.  Subsequently this has become a major government initiative to foster higher levels of employee engagement as an economic driver.

“As our public services face the reality of an end to the years of rapid growth in investment, it is hard to see how the quality of service we all aspire to see – employees and citizens alike – can be achieved without putting the enthusiasm, commitment and knowledge of public service employees at the forefront of delivery strategies.” David Macleod & Nita Clark

Four things public sector leaders can do now to maintain engagement

1. Make real communication a priority now

All the Ministerial Releases that can be printed or posted on the intranets (plural) will not actually address the communication need at the heart of this challenge.

During uncertainty people need more real communication, and they need it from their managers and supervisors fast. The majority of trust and engagement is attributable to the actions of leaders and supervisors, not memos.

Real means two-way face-to-face communication. Dialogue, listening, and discussion are part of the sense-making process for major change.  This requires planning, commitment, time and skills – at a time when costs are being scrutinised. But the cost of not adopting real communication is another workplace-generation of low engagement and mistrust.

2. Listen

This is what it says on the tin. There are two levels of listening that are key. The first is as a leader, genuinely listen; take time to hear and acknowledge the experience of people facing change. The second is institutional listening; ensure that there are ways of capturing the attitudes, questions and concerns of employees. In environments where listening has not been high on the agenda this is a big – but symbolically priceless – change if it is done effectively. This doesn’t mean ‘just another survey’ or feedback box. It does mean engaging in dialogue about the reality of the changes.

3. Stop waiting to communicate until there is more information

There will always be an information gap. That doesn’t mean there should be a communication gap.  Realise that not communicating is not an option.  Talk about possible scenarios, and talk to facts. Talk about process in the absence of details of the change. When there is nothing to update, tell people there is nothing to update. Ask questions.  Or listen.

If employees are reading something outside the organisation – whether in the news or on twitter – be prepared for some form of communication inside.

Making an announcement then asking employees to ‘discuss this with their manager’ without equipping managers and supervisors to have next-level conversations about change sets them up to fail. Even in organisations with healthy levels of engagement, it is not uncommon for there to be a pain point at the mid-level manager. They are expected to be the local face of change, yet are also typically facing the impact of changes themselves.  If it’s important to increase the focus on communication during uncertainty for employees, it is twice as essential for managers.

4. Be real

Communication is never a substitute for strategy. If the strategy is going to be challenging, saying otherwise is not going to make it better. Although the public is accustomed to spin being part of the political discourse, spin has no place in employee communication.

Discuss what the future requires, what the current situation looks like, and what needs to happen to bridge that divide. For managers and supervisors, this means taking the time to be able to understand change and discuss it.

If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Establish links to the policy and strategic priorities you do have greater certainty about.

The seven things to do next

  1. Have a plan
  2. Understand the context
  3. Put it in real language
  4. Prioritise face to face and dialogue
  5. Listen
  6. Support managers in their role
  7. Communicate some more.

As change and uncertainty is a feature of every industry and sector and part of the landscape of business – the new normal – rather than accepting the negative consequences, leaders have the opportunity to face into the change and use the change as a catalyst for open, constructive communication.

 

*The Commission of Audit has up to 25000 jobs to be cut depending on the recommendations applied.

** including Towers Watson, TJ Larkin, Hewitt, Edelman Trust, Melcrum

Disclosure: I have provided advisory counsel, change and communication training to a number of Federal and State Government departments, agencies and directorates, both as Meaning Business and in my former role as Research & Content Director, Melcrum Asia Pacific.

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