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Maril MacDonald on the Value of Employee Engagement Programs

By Keith Trivitt

May 1, 2011

Employee communications and engagement have undergone a dramatic evolution in recent years. Maril MacDonald, founder of the strategy execution and employee engagement firm Gagen MacDonald, understands how that evolution has affected the role of employee communications professionals. In this exclusive PRSA video, MacDonald discusses the transformation of employee communications professionals from broadcasters of internal corporate information to facilitators of dialogue and multidimensional lines of communication.

As MacDonald notes, employee engagement measures often attempt to quantify attitudes, beliefs and feelings, such as job satisfaction, pride and loyalty. And while these are undeniably aspects of engagement, the true power of an engaged workforce is in behavior and discretionary effort — an effort that delivers business results.

So, what are companies who really understand employee engagement doing about it? What best practices should we model?

MacDonald believes that above all, companies must be passionate about engagement. Engagement isn’t a formal initiative; it’s not about a survey or a campaign. It’s not the sole responsibility of a department or a project team.

She emphasizes that every employee in an organization — from the managers to the leadership team — has a role to play in owning individual engagement. They must understand where coworkers and direct reports are on their engagement journey. And they must build a culture where everyone can clearly see their contributions and feel connected to something greater than them.

In this video, MacDonald offers specific ideas on what companies do well when they really understand the power of engagement.

While MacDonald states that there is no easy answer and no quick, four-step process for building engagement,  dialogue is a strong first step — as long as you’re committed to truly listening to employees and helping connect their energy and passion with the vision and values of the organization.

On the differences between employee engagement and employee communication:
For a long time, people thought of employee communication as a one-way process. It was an area where we communicated from one to many, disseminating information. The shift to employee engagement then began to connote a two-way or multidimensional dialogue. Employee engagement is about connecting people emotionally to the work that they’re doing every day, which is different from, “How do we share information with them?” As people are becoming more aligned with the concept of engagement, the term “employee communication” has shifted as well and is often looked at as more of a two-way process.

On successful employee engagement programs:
The companies that understand employee engagement have a couple of things in common. One is that they start with listening and want to understand what our employee population is all about. What are the issues, what do the people who are closest to the work [think] we need to do — the people who are closest to the customer? This is different from the old model of somebody with a big title telling everybody else what to do. There’s a lot of co-creation instead of management telling or selling people. The other thing we’re seeing now is more use of social media as a channel for that dialogue and co-creation. Companies are becoming more aware of the need to connect at an emotional level to their brand, their vision, their values — and to get to the core of, “Who are we really, and how do we connect our employees to that?”

On the business case for employee engagement programs:
The first thing I’d say to leadership is, “Show me leadership without communication.” Maybe they weren’t actually talking; maybe it was through their actions or behaviors. But you can’t have leadership without communication. Companies are realizing that their reputation is driven by their behavior, and it’s about having a good story, well told — not just telling a good story. So having employees engaged and representing the company at every point of contact is absolutely critical to success.

On the measurement of employee engagement programs:
It’s a myth that you can’t measure employee engagement programs, or that they’re difficult to measure. People try to connect and measure employee engagement by certain satisfaction levels or happy “whistle while you work” types of things. But we can go further than that. In fact, there is some amazing work being done where you can see causal relationships between certain engagement behaviors and actual business outcomes. And I mean serious outcomes: reducing absenteeism, increasing productivity and improving the financial performance of the organization. You can prove that with certain behaviors; you can actually create the performance of the organization.

On the future of public relations as a management function:
This is a fabulous time to be in public relations. Management in every company I’m talking to has come to recognize that, short of the CEO, it’s the PR people who are knitting together all the issues and opportunities. For years, we’ve heard people talk about being at the table. Well, we are at the table.


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