From 60 years of accumulated scholarship about employee communication and engagement, we can safely reach two conclusions: First, organizations that effectively engage their workforces have better business results than those which do not. Second, most organizations do not effectively engage their workforces.

Attempting to document why organizational leaders who know what to do don’t do it, we’ve hypothesized a list of 17 possible reasons and invite practitioner and academic advice.

Organizational reasons why employee communication/engagement is under-deployed:

  1. Top executives place a higher priority on outside constituencies
  2. Top executives know the arguments about employee engagement leading to better business results, but do not believe them.
  3. The evidence of the link between engagement and business results is perceived as correlative but not causative. Those who engage their employees also do other things right.
  4. Top executives believe their organizations are doing a good job, using conventional media channels (though the literature strongly favors other means, such as empowered and trained supervisors).
  5. The organization’s culture is closed to engagement of any voices outside the dominant coalition, including employees.
  6. Communicators who may know better are locked into the subsystems of another department, such as law, marketing, human resources or finance.

Individual reasons:

  1. Communication managers have a professional bias in favor of conventional media channels.
  2. Advocates for employee engagement, both in human resources and communication, are not part of the dominant coalition.
  3. Advocates for employee communication are unskilled in selling the need for and results of an engaged workforce.
  4. Advocates lack the skills to measure results.
  5. Advocates lack the political savvy to know how things get done in their organizations.
  6. Communicators are unwilling to change their own practices to carry out the needed programs for engagement.

Systemic reasons:

  1. The data demonstrating the relationship of an engaged workforce to business results is not known to top executives.
  2. Employee communication is not recognized in MBA and other management training programs.
  3. Public relations educational programs focus on hard skill development and do not train practitioners to sell their ideas to management or understand organizational politics.
  4. People change jobs much more often, so there is no perceived payoff from investment in employee communications; the feeling is employees, engaged or otherwise, will leave anyway.
  5. There is a belief that employee communication isn’t really necessary. The feeling is employees should be glad to have a job, and if they “do what they’re told to do” benefits such as productivity and good customer relations will follow.

Which of these reasons seem most evident to you? Can some be dismissed out of hand?  Are some reasons missing? Please offer your comments over the next couple of weeks. My colleagues and I will take them into account as we prepare a publication on the topic, and as we think through the design of future “why not” research.


David Therkelsen, MBA, APR, Fellow PRSA
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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9 thoughts on “Engaging Employees: Why Do You Think We Don’t?

  1. Completely agree with David Therkelsen’s comment: “it’s also true that the supervisor-as-communicator model strengthens the role of communicators, if only they can bring themselves to abandon the notion that it’s all about the company newsletter or video or CEO blog. If communicators support the skill-building of supervisors, and then provide the communication artifacts that supervisors need to be effective in this role, they’ll still have plenty to do and bring more value to their organizations.”

    It’s an organizational gap, and we have traditionally promoted strong workers into leadership roles based on their functional expertise versus true people leadership skills, which include the ability to be an effective motivator and communicator. Communications has been working with leadership development to upskill those currently in the roles and better define those skills in the pipeline.

    Secondly, several mention an organizational gap in change management. Often, the “commmunication” of a significant change becomes a “check box” item and the stages of change from an organizational behavior standpoint are completely discounted.

  2. David, thanks for this very thoughtful piece. While these all may be cited as reasons why we don;t engage employees, I could add a few others.

    For some, in this resource-constrained world in which managers work today, time is a big factor. While managers know the importance of engagement, they have so many competing priorities that communication and engagement may be forced down their list of priorities. It’s not right, but it can be a reality in some organizations. And make no mistake about it — what we value in our cultures gets done.

    I would also add that some managers feel ill-equipped to engage because they lack the training, the endorsement, the support and the content to do it.

    Finally, you have people who find ways to resist change in every organization. Some elect not to communicate and engage because they want to control information (as power), or they believe that if they ignore it, it may go away as another “flavor of the month.”

  3. Lots of good, thoughtful comments here. Jeffrey Bishop said something of particular importance: that relying on supervisors and middle managers “removes control from management and PR.” While I think most of us in either category should get over the notion that we have all that much control in the first place, it’s also true that the supervisor-as-communicator model strengthens the role of communicators, if only they can bring themselves to abandon the notion that it’s all about the company newsletter or video or CEO blog. If communicators support the skill-building of supervisors, and then provide the communication artifacts that supervisors need to be effective in this role, they’ll still have plenty to do and bring more value to their organizations.
    Also, Jeffrey, in your search for good data making the connection between employee engagement and business results, look at the ongoing Towers Watson studies. Also see Bruce Berger’s Grunig Lecture at national PRSA a couple of years ago; Dr. Berger cites a lot of the best, current work.

  4. Hi Jim, I am working on knowledge communication which try to integrate the concept of employee engagement and organisational listening, I will be glad if you can send me a copy of your pilot study on organisational listening. thanks

  5. I was fortunate, over the years, to work for several organizations which worked hard at listening. A few examples:
    1. Working for a large regional airline, we set up a call in system so that folks could raise questions anonymously. Answers to these questions were then published in an employee newsletter. This helped quell rumors (back then, we estimated that a rumor could “fly” around the system from one coast to the other, in less than 8 hours, since our employees would fly to a hub airport, then chat with someone getting on a jet and going somewhere else.)
    2. At a mid-sized manufacturing company, we set up a process to survey half of the employee population every six months. This was carried on for a number of years. Because we had a longitudinal set of data, we were able to develop strategies and tactics and show that we were using the survey information to make specific changes in policies and procedures. We made sure that we communicated those changes to employees, and that the Employee Opinion Survey was the basis for those changes. We also randomly asked about a dozen employees to meet for a brown bag lunch every month with the President – no fixed agenda, and no boss/subordinate pairs in the room. Open dialogue and one basic question: what can the company do to make your job easier/better/more effective?
    Most employees like to work in organizations where management is open to listening, and most employees will understand that not every idea or suggestion can be implemented. But being allowed to speak openly can only increase engagement and employee interest. And isn’t that what management should want?

  6. Great post and a topic I’m keenly interested in — so I have some thoughts!

    * First, while there may be a significant body of knowledge linking employee engagement to organizational outcomes, I’ve struggled as a practitioner (not an academic) to find good data that demonstrates a link between either communication and outcomes, or between communication and engagement. It’s almost self-evidently so, but Google it 100 different ways and you’ll be frustrated at what little comes up. So that makes it difficult to make the case for employee communications that engage …
    * Communications that engage employees are often decentralized — they often rely upon empowered supervisors and middle managers/front-line leaders. This removes control from management and PR.
    * Jim Macnamara touched on this as well, but engaging communication channels feature “all-way” dialogue: up, down, and across the organization. The presence of feedback demands responsiveness, accountability and action on the part of management and PR, which is resource intensive and may include untenable demands or commentary.

    My hope is that as the dichotomy between “high tech” and “high touch” dissolves in the advent of ever-better social and virtual communication channels, that employee engagement will naturally improve in our organizations.

  7. Very interesting topic David. I am currently researching organizational listening – or, rather, the lack of it. I think you should add this to your list, or incorporate it into other points.Your number 5 partly covers this. But organizational listening and the reasons for lack of it are even broader. There are cultural dimensions (some orgs don’t want to listen or don’t think anyone outside their dominant coalition has anything worthwhile to contribute); there are institutional dimensions (power relations, lines of reporting, traditions, etc); there are resource dimensions (no staff to collect, monitor, analyse, summarize feedback and comment – even on social media there is lack of listening – only talking); and there are technological dimensions (lack of what I call ‘an architecture of listening’). PR and corporate comms mostly build an architecture of speaking – putting out information and it is much the same with employee comms. But they have little by way of tools and technologies for listening – such as good monitoring tools, text analysis software, argumentation software, etc. I have a paper from a pilot study of organisational listening just completed if you are interested.

    A second point is that I am not sure management (or some practitioners) know what engagement is. It is described in superficial terms, such as clickthoughs on Web pages, likes, following, etc. But it is a deep psychological concept requiring much greater levels of emotional connection and participation. Many orgs attempt engagement at a cognitive / information processing level and fundamentally fail to gain emotional (affective) commitment and don’t allow participation which, most of all, hooks people in.

  8. Addition to your list: Executive leadership may believe it’s important but they don’t necessarily serve as good models and don’t clearly define expectations for the rest of the management team. If executives are engaged in communications, other managers will follow. And when leaders are held accountable for their communications – through 360 feedback mechanisms or performance metrics – greater commitment is visible.

  9. Great post. I think that number 15 is the winner here, although clearly several points are relevant and worthy of analysis:

    15.Public relations educational programs focus on hard skill development and do not train practitioners to sell their ideas to management or understand organizational politics.

    Based on my work experience to date, I cannot think of a more valuable skill set than knowing how to sell to the dominant coalition … or, for that matter, knowing how to secure buy-in from any stakeholder. Should be PR101 at every educational institution.


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