Mending our cloth ear for employee voice?

A couple of recent professional experiences from very different corners of our organisation have jolted me into thinking afresh about how we handle ’employee voice’.

#1 – An expensive, live-interpreted, EU-mandated employee forum, in which engaged employee volunteers are exposed to the old mistrust between management and unions, silencing any potentially open (vulnerable) and constructive dialogue.

#2 – A global CSR programme, finding no place for its specific outputs to be measured in the existing employee survey, concludes it will need to launch its own internal survey, if it is to deliver performance metrics on employee awareness and approval to exec sponsors.

Though miles apart, what’s been nagging at me is how much we risk when we take employee voice for granted, or fritter away the intelligence it potentially has to offer us. Why do we ask employees to contribute, without preparing fertile conditions for their input to bear fruit? Why do we treat them as captives we can tax for information, with little thought to what they will read between the lines of each half-baked expression of interest from above?

IC hacks like me are responsible for a lot of rhetoric about the critical importance of dialogue to communication – but I’m only just beginning to see the gap as an immediate, practical challenge. It feels like it’s time to get serious, and a couple of means to that end are coming into focus for me:

  1. Employee voice channel audit: itemise the ways employees are currently asked to contribute, and sense-check their value, both to emps and to the organisation. If we don’t know this, how can we manage it properly?
  2. Voice channel policy: are there general principles or protocols that should hold from online forums to surveys to face-to-face voice channels? How and where will the organisation own and enforce these policies?
  3. Outside-in: in what other mass audience relationships (customer?) is there an existing investment in cultivating voice and extracting value from it? What can we lift and shift?

If we truly think dialogue is essential to engagement, let’s start managing our IC functions like we mean it. I hope you’ll have some suggestions …

3 Comments

  1. First of all, Adam – I like the way you’re thinking here. Particularly I like the sense-checking, because we all sense that there’s voice/survey fatigue – but unless we start sense-checking, how can we cut down?

    The big suggestion that occurs to me is maybe impractical (or maybe you’re already well on top of it) – audit the communications sent out to employees. At the very least, get a notion of the volume and the some rough idea of the sources.

    I think the balance between the two communication directions is critical. I don’t think it’s a question of parity, employees have many things to do (and many of their own priorities) besides voice, but there comes a point where if one side is doing the vast majority of the talking we kind of get disconnected from the conversation.

    Finally, as I often do, I have to throw in the notion of auditing all comms, not just IC programmes. Many people are feeling information overload – but it’s as much from operational comms as IC. Somehow we have to start grappling with that.

    Of course, all this extra auditing suggests more audit fatigue, but I don’t think you have to survey everyone to get a sense of the comms balance (to and fro, or ops vs IC). A few sample interview conversations should be enough – with the added benefit that well run conversations are actually often a boost to people, rather than a soul-sucking drain.

  2. Adam
    You highlight a few gaps that have almost become the norm in corporate cultures and they all seem to be widening.
    A. The gap between leaders and workers. On paper this gap looks narrower because we have flattened the org chart. The reality is the thin line has become a vacuum.
    B.The gap between the company position and their employees’ needs. The focus for employee comms on making sure colleagues “get it” and then testing to see how much they are “getting it” drives a wedge between true dialogue.
    C. The gap between corporate communications and social communications. The belief that messages, channels and audiences can be delineated, owned and controlled doesn’t match the convergent world that we live in.

    On the face of it, organisational interventions seem to be working against the the three key drivers of autonomy – awareness, spontaneity and intimacy.
    So any interventions that facilitate direct and free talking that is grounded in the here and now and cuts through organisation boundaries will reverse this trend and close the gap.

    I’d offer alternative approaches to your areas of focus:-
    1.NO MORE AUDITS: Upskill managers to facilitate conversations that encourage employee contribution.
    2.NO MORE POLICIES: Harvest the stories where those conversations lead to innovation.
    3.INSIDE-OUT: Don’t tell employees what customers want, ask them what they would want if they were (and probably are) a customer.

  3. Thanks, both.

    On auditing, the value from where I sit is the need for ammo to substantiate the case for change – where IC needs to reposition itself with the management, for permission to do, eg, the good upskilling stuff Sean suggests. And agreed, over my dead body would we go about this by means of Yet Another Soul Sucking Survey™.

    That’s also where my hunch about policy-making comes from. Perhaps in an ideal world we’d have none, but for now, we’re subject to the logic of the existing policies – until we change them. In my context, it would help us force some coherence around the uses (and abuses) of employee voice. In particular, I can see a new policy giving us the right to rationalise all the excessive and random surveying, issuing from so many functions and levels of the organisation.

    I like Sean’s image of overt interventions making the issue worse, by which I understand, tending to undermine the rich organic connections we’re looking to cultivate. Takes me back to a conversation I had with The Klein on ning, where we agreed that over-reliance on formal process *causes* more organic, informal connections to atrophy – to build these, we need to deliberately dial-down our ‘programme’ habit.

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