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An emotional connection

In the long term, management's loss of engagement with its workforce can be far more detrimental to a company than cutting budgets. This article outlines the problems and what can be done to maintain employees' support

The recession is affecting every industry, including the pharmaceutical sector. Mergers, teamed with cross-sector acquisitions, are causing enormous disruption in major pharmaceutical corporations and this, in turn, is leading to employee unrest, a sense of vulnerability and often, as a consequence, a loss of motivation.

In fact, recent research has shown that issues facing major corporations across all industries are less about economic downturn and much more about a loss of emotional connection with employees. As budgets tighten, often managers' swift reactions result in more restrictive controls. This can strangle employee engagement and energy.

In the long term, management's neglect of the emotional connection it has with its employees can be truly detrimental. This can be far worse than cutting budgets. Most people are generally quite prepared, and often thrive on the opportunity, to rally and continue despite hardship. As long as they feel it is for a worthwhile reason, as long as they feel management understands, they will combat serious hardship and stoically endure difficult circumstances.

However, if managers lead without actually achieving 'leadership' – in other words, if employees stop following – a communication rift starts to open, spreading rapidly through a company and causing long-term damage.

Management needs to give its communications strategies regular health checks and often the best results are achieved when these are viewed from a distance. Even the best leaders can become submerged in day-to-day activities and need to take a step back to overview a situation. Frequently, events and issues develop so rapidly that their decisions are not founded on what works best for the entire team. Often, in this instance, there is little, if any, thought given to how best the situation should be communicated to get backing from all team members for additional support when needed.

If employees stop following, a communication rift starts to open, spreading rapidly through a company and causing long-term damage

Even the most brilliant chief, the most inspiring leader, the most charismatic manager, needs someone to implement communication strategies. To communicate in a relevant and memorable way, focusing on the essence of what needs to be conveyed and ensuring dissemination in a coherent manner is a different talent from being a first-class manager, a 'people person' and a leader.

There is another issue to consider. Those companies that have managed to attain excellent levels of emotional support from their employees still need to understand that, without constant communication, this could all slip away. It is precisely those employees who have strong emotional connections with the company they work for who are most affected if goals are changed without much consultation and preparation. So, while the management may feel it is making the right choices for the company, it needs to ensure that these decisions are communicated to all stakeholders in a sensitive manner.

Those who once felt strongly in favour of the management can easily turn if they feel they have been overlooked and uninformed.

True innovation can arise in hard times as ways are sought to achieve better with less. However, employees who feel disconnected from their regular responsibilities are hardly likely to innovate, thus denying organisations their strongest possibility of working through their problems.

While this seems an impossible balancing act, there are numerous points at which communications, whether they are one-to-one, small informal groups or major events, can produce positive results. The key is to know what works best and when.

The drip-feed approach in communication is actually one of the most powerful. Long periods of silence between meetings allow rumours to start spreading and escalate out of control. Communicating little and often keeps the chief executive's strategy front of mind, allows flexibility and shows listening as well as explaining. Continually checking on progress, with small rewards, gives workers a sense of purpose as well as progress, plus a sense of taking part and of being valued.

There are several opportunities, which are frequently ignored, in industry sectors where employees inherently believe that they are misunderstood by the populace. The pharmaceutical sector is one, as well as banking, petrochemical and telecoms. In these sectors, there is an 'us against the world' mentality which results in an approach typified by 'we'll fight on, no matter what. As long as we believe what we do is important'. This emotion can be harnessed and used to positive effect.

The message is, of course, at the heart of any strategy, but where and how it is delivered is equally important and often discounted as a waste of money or time.

Importance of location
Location plays a very important role. Taking a small group of staff out to a coffee shop for a meeting evokes a camaraderie hard to achieve in a boardroom. For an important launch or the refreshment of a strategy, a venue outside the office sends the message 'this is important' to employees. For so long, chief financial officers have advocated using company premises to save money. Taking the team outside the working premises immediately makes people feel more excited and, as a result, more receptive. It cuts through the humdrum and the 'business as usual' routine.

Another important strategy is to create an environment where it is alright to ask 'why?' So many managers are reluctant to be questioned about a given strategy. They may feel the answer will not be well received or, worse, they may feel they do not have the answer. This goes back to the importance of creating strategies that are clear; they may be harsh, but need to be transparent. In fact, developing two-way communication is vital and, if done correctly, the 'bitching Q&A sessions' will soon disappear in favour of open, constructive dialogue.

Employee disillusionment, once it occurs, is much harder and considerably more expensive to rectify

Delivering the communication message in different ways has always been suggested, but such plans are seldom actually introduced, as most managers either do not have the skills or are too nervous to suggest ideas to their teams that remove them from their familiar comfort zones.

The answer is to get some help. It is hard enough for managers to manage, let alone become communications experts overnight. The cost of this is practicable, whereas employee disillusionment, once it occurs, is much harder and considerably more expensive to rectify.

When an emotional disconnection is referred to in business management, it is generally assumed to be between management and those at 'the coal face'. Hoewver, often the problem is between the senior management and middle management levels.

When this occurs, the implementation of strategy becomes chaotic at best, and sometimes destructive, as individuals who do not know in detail what their chief is thinking grasp something out of context to appear confident in front of their teams.

Lead by example
It is vital for senior management to use the same techniques advocated for employees at lower level. Leading by example is still as powerful as ever: 'Do what I do rather than what I say'. No one accepts hypocrisy.

Of course, different teams require slightly different communications, but often they are not as different as may be imagined. Developing consistency will reinforce the strength of the message, doubling its importance to the team. Mixed messaging can kill good ideas at the outset, before they have enough legs to run.

Without doubt, taking the team out for a cappuccino once a month is not the whole story. It is all about being able to engage with the team, continuing the momentum back in the office, perhaps via viral and electronic media, to make things more engaging and fun. If it is fun, and they listen, then the communication of the strategy is simple.

Mapping the medium and the message is a crucial exercise; get this right and the rest is possible. Get it wrong and the struggle is uphill. Part of the medium is the correct environment. Another is tone-of-voice. Add things like colour and brightness and this gives an idea of how complicated this picture can be. Managers will develop a feel for this and get there by judgement and no small amount of trial and error. This is provided that they want to and have the time, of course. 

Managers need to spend more time listening; listening and responding. There is a massive difference between leading an empowered team that is following confidently in the manager's footsteps and dragging a team along, kicking and screaming, arguing and protesting or, worse still, one that is no longer listening.

And when there is a win, it should be celebrated. Everyone likes to feel the effort has been worthwhile. When the tangible rewards are small, they need to be compensated by the intangibles. Recognition is the key here, for a good job, well done. Most people agree that recognition is every bit as important as reward. 

So, to summarise:

  • Acknowledge the tough times ahead
  • Communicate the strategy clearly
  • Disseminate the information consistently
  • Invite feedback
  • Address the feedback openly and honestly
  • Be prepared to change if it is in the interest of the whole team
  • Get the environment right
  • Map the message and the medium
  • Strengthen the emotional connection
  • Celebrate the wins
  • Keep the team spirit.

Onwards and upwards…

The Author

Nick Eve is CEO of Pumphouse

To comment on this article, please use the commenting feature below


10th November 2011


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