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Nita Clarke, director at Involvement and Participation Associationand co-author of the significant Engaging for Success report for government, believes the link between culture and engagement presents opportunities for organisations.

People want meaningful jobs. Jobs where they can contribute to society or the organisation they work for. Jobs where they are paid and treated fairly, where there is camaraderie and where they understand the outcome of what they are doing.
I don’t think employees felt any differently years ago, but, for a long time, that point of view didn’t cross many organisations’ radars.

Lack of purpose creates dissatisfaction

Having previously worked for the Labour party as Tony Blair’s assistant political secretary, in 2007I got a job as director at Involvement and Participation Association. IPA works with clients to deliver employee engagement, partnership and employee voice in the workplace.
I became interested in how we could deal with the high levels of unhappiness at work. ‘Productivity’ isn’t exactly a people word, but it was clear that people weren’t being pushed to their full potential at work. There was a lack of understanding among employees around the purpose of what they were doing
There were pioneers, like Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines, who just got it. He put employees first.
It’s been a gradual slow burn, but leaders gradually began to understand it’s people you need to focus on. They are not just your key asset, but your only asset. You may have capital assets, but they’re wasted if the people who work for you don’t care about the business. 
Culture matters.We all hear stories of corporations where negative cultures have led to institutional collapse. Well, of course there’s a link between the two.

The enablers to a positive culture

It was thought that greater understanding of employee engagement could shed light on this.
In 2008, I was asked to work with David Macleod, now co-chair of Engage for Success, on a report for government.
When we started Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement, the topic was seen as soft and fluffy. We’ve moved on. Now many boards want to know about their people issues.
It is hugely challenging – it’s not easy to do. It requires a culture of respect. You get engagement with empowerment and understanding. It involves leading and managing in a different way, and moving away from a command and control operation. It’s hard to go from trusting your hierarchy to trusting your people.
The critical thing about the report was the four enablers: strategic narrative; engaging managers; employee voice; and organisational integrity.
We visited hundreds of organisations, and the best ones are those who want to make a difference and have a good and articulate story to tell around their purpose. They have managers who know how to lead people, there is a respect for employee voice and opinions, and there is trust – there isn’t a disparity between the values on the wall and behaviour.
These values are likely to become even more significant when you look at the how the rise of social media and the eagerness of millennials to have their say has impacted society. As an example, you only have to look at how women have used social media to come together and organised themselves with movements like #MeToo. It’s a powerful tool.

Opportunities for IC

IC practitioners today need to seize the moment. Organisations are now more interested in this issue and there’s a huge opportunity for professionals in the space, in internal comms and HR, to lead that agenda internally.
It’s a big opportunity, but also a challenge. The problem with internal comms is it can become a branding exercise. Practitioners must remember internal comms means listening, and the challenge is in helping organisations to do just that.
The opportunity has come in a way that no one could have predicted. There’s a strong sense that all is not well in corporate circles. People can see the impact of toxic cultures and there is recognition that things still need to change.
But we are getting there. Discussions about topics such as mental health at work would not have been on the table 10 years ago. People are being treated with more respectand feeling more fulfilled at work. At the heart of that are IC professionals. They have a chance to move away from simple broadcast – from the weekly email from the chief exec – to a rallying, more sophisticated way of connecting and engaging staff.

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