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Engagement is more than communication, it’s about devolving decision-making

Following the launch of the Government’s engagement task force and continued attempts by employers to get it right, it is worth taking a deeper look at employee engagement – namely what it is, and isn’t.

Firstly, most approaches to employee engagement seem to be no more than 'engaging communication'. Much-used internal communication tools such as the company newsletter or website are developed by organisations as channels to keep employees in the loop. Yet, these methods only serve to highlight how many 'behind closed doors' consultations have already taken place, whether large or small, without employee input. This is an all too common example of where communication is simply masquerading as engagement.

When internal communication was 'invented' in the 1980s, it was designed largely to convey information about vision, culture, values and strategy and provide a line of sight between these criteria and an employee's role. It was also created to provide leadership with the means to connect with their people and vice versa. But again, these outcomes rest on an assumption that decisions large or small have already been made before this communication process takes place.

If businesses truly want to engage with employees, they should devolve some elements of the decision-making process to them. It is not necessarily all about the big strategic decisions, it is very much about the everyday decisions too. But what it definitely is about is power-sharing: an approach which employers must adopt.

Particularly relevant to this idea of power-sharing is the interest in 'mutual' businesses, modelled rather effectively by organisations such as John Lewis. This style of mutualism clearly seems to have created a culture of co-ownership here, and with this sense of joint accountability comes a stronger desire to make things work for the good of the business and the people within it.

Engage for Change research into workplace engagement shows 16% of employees think their business operates in secret, giving them no opportunity to discuss or get involved in decision-making. Only 11% feel they are involved in decision-making from the outset, meaning there is certainly room for improvement among the vast majority of UK businesses.

What is very interesting about the study is that it shows a clear link between a collaborative approach and engagement levels. The findings show that as power-sharing increases, levels of engagement among those who consider themselves to be engaged increases, as do levels of engagement among those who report themselves as not being engaged.

This shows that power-sharing is not merely a concept and that there is real business benefit to be had. Where employees feel their decisions are being heard, considered and implemented, a greater sense of engagement will be fostered. Developing a culture that says 'we are all in it together' also helps forge a stronger sense of alignment with the business, which in turn can help grow a more cohesive workplace. With these building blocks in place, organisations are on the right track to lead the way in employee engagement.

While the question of employee engagement is certainly not a new one, there are newer concepts and paths that have perhaps not been well trodden by businesses as yet. What is clear is that if management can make moves to providing employees with more autonomy in decision-making, which will come from showing confidence in the workforce, they will have equipped themselves with some strong tools to help build a more engaged organisation overall.

John Smythe (pictured) is CEO at engagement consultancy Engage for Change