Thought Pieces


Frank Nigriello, director of corporate affairs at Unipart Group, considers the psychology of communication and the critical need for emotion and human interaction in our employee engagement strategy. 

I was a journalist – that’s my background. As a journalist, I would present information. But as a communicator, I have learned to think about my role in a very different way. 
The internal communications role has changed significantly during the past three decades. When I started in internal comms in the 1980s, people were talking about methods of informing people who worked for an organisation. IC was largely about broadcast. 
As industry matured, we began understanding how to make messages relevant to individuals or audience segments, in effect to narrowcast communications so that people understood “what it means to me”. This led to communications specialists considering how to close the feedback loop or how to create a dialogue and listen actively. 
We asked questions around how to replace the most effective form of communication – face-to-face communication – with other methods. Technology changed those questions fundamentally. When business leaders began to use the internet, or intranet, for web-based conversations, there was a desire to go one step further and not just connect with employees and exchange information, but to engage them. 

A matter of self-esteem

So, what is an engaged employee? That is a question that is still debated today. Many refer to employees “who go the extra mile”, but that’s evidence of engagement – not quite a definition.
I have a background in psychology. Psychology students often joke that that every behavioural problem is either rooted in your relationship with your mother or low self-esteem. That’s a little flippant, but there is value in recognising the significance of self-esteem. 
My view is that when an employee’s self-esteem is aligned – to a degree, even if not completely – with the objectives of an organisation and its values, that person will be “engaged”. If I have pride and respect in my organisation, if I identify with the organisation as part of my persona, I start thinking about my organisation in a different, positive way, and this reflects on my personal contribution.
Increasingly employees are reversing that construct to reflect a growing expectation of responsible behaviour on the part of companies and their leaders. We’ve seen the extremes of negative behaviours and the impact that’s had on businesses and industries. 
We have become less tolerant of our employers and leaders who behave in a way that’s not seen as responsible or reputable – because it reflects who we are. There is a growing awareness among employees about their role in the organisation and whether their personal values are being impacted by the company. Are my company’s actions or policies aligned to how I see myself in the world? If not, what should I do about it? Will disengaged employees choose to leave, or worse; will they quit and stay?

Emotion over fact

Those levels of deep engagement are often driven by an emotional connection. We may underestimate the importance of emotion in decision-making, but it is a key factor. People don’t have conversations based on fact after fact after fact. It’s not how human beings work. As communicators, we are constantly challenged to find the emotional dimension that will resonate with our audiences
While we may struggle to incorporate methods of addressing issues that are emotional or that carry emotional content by using different media, the essential communication tool remains at the core of any successful campaign. We are the storytellers. Our success or failure depends largely on the strength of our narrative. 
There are few technologies, no matter how sophisticated, that can compensate for a weak, inauthentic narrative. Traditionally, constructing the authentic narrative has been the fundamental toolkit for the communicator. Today, it is essential to every business leader.

The responsibility of leaders

This dependency on creating and delivering the authentic narrative has reshaped the organsational structure of many companies. 
Thirty or forty years ago, IC was largely seen as a subsidiary of the HR function, often twice removed. I’m pleased that, today, the way we communicate with the people who create value in our business is far more professional and is considered to be far more critical in terms of leveraging the future of an organisation strategically. It’s being recognised at board level, and leaders now understand it is enough for the IC department simply to facilitate the transmission of data. Communication has become a leadership function.
Communicators now face an increased challenge: the impact of the so-called fourth industrial revolution, or the convergence of multiple technologies to deliver better, faster and more efficient performance through automation. 
As Tom Friedman points out, the pace of change is happening at a speed far faster than our ability to adapt. Lateral communication, or the ability for employees to share their day-to-day experiential knowledge and to codify that experience as a part of the organisation’s learning is the new challenge for communicators.
Social media has enhanced people’s interest in communicating online about interesting things that they do, but have we cracked the ability to do the same thing about our business interests? We are good at sharing pictures of our dinner, but not as good at sharing information about the ideas and learning that may ultimately help to pay for that dinner. 
It is a key role for communicators to encourage a culture in which people openly share their achievements as well as their failures. Organisations can learn from both, but communicators must be highly sensitised to protecting the self-esteem of individuals who share either. 
Communication as a process will continue to evolve. It is now about moving from information to involvement, from broadcast to engagement, from “espousing what we know” to sharing what we have learned. If there is a fourth industrial revolution, today’s communicators are not reporting from the sidelines – their narratives will be shaping the future.

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