Category Archives: Engagement

When even clunky PowerPoint works!

cancer_cellsAt last week’s always-stimulating Hay Festival I attended a talk by an eminent biochemist entitled ‘Demystifying Cancer’.   It was basically a PowerPoint presentation and what’s more, the speaker broke almost every rule in the ‘how to use PowerPoint’ book. Lots of slides, too much text, Comic Sans font, clunky clip art and basic animation.   Not, perhaps, the recipe for an informative and engaging communication session.   However, it was fantastic – a lesson in how to communicate a complex subject and to make the message stick.   I left the session with a whole new level of understanding of this massively complicated area. I could explain to my daughter how cells mutate, I understood how tumours form and I felt uplifted by the advances in science.   The impact, of course, was because the speaker was so engaging.   His well-rehearsed presentation was stunning in its simplicity and compelling in its delivery. But it wasn’t just about the presenter.   It was a triumph for PowerPoint too.   Yes it was a completely amateurish set of slides, clearly put together by someone experimenting with all the buttons on the PowerPoint task bar, but the content was designed to be simple and in that context, the simple home-made look of the slideware fitted the occasion perfectly.   Arrows moving uncomfortably across the screen seemed to work, flashing garish red text highlighted key points beautifully and the shockingly awful clipart images introduced humorous metaphors at just the right time.   Well done professor.

Earlier that morning I finished reading a book about ‘simplicity’ and how to overcome the “crisis of complexity” that is sweeping across our lives and workplaces.   This is something us communicators can relate to only so well, even though we’re often the ones creating the complexity by communicating too much. Here’s a good quote from the book*:  “From jury instructions to user manuals, we’re witnessing an epidemic of over-explaining. This seems to be based on the fallacy that if you provide people with more information, it will yield greater understanding. In fact, the opposite is true: too much information overwhelms people. It creates fuzziness, not clarity. When inundated with information, people are apt to lose sight of what’s important and stop paying attention.”   Bravo.  The book introduces three principles of simplicity – empathise, clarify and distil.   We comms people can relate to the second and third but I wonder how much credence we really place on empathising with our audience – understanding other’s needs and expectations.   Not enough I think.   My next book, also picked up at Hay, is all about Empathy so I’ll read it and report back my findings!

Funny enough, when I returned from Hay I started on a new project. What’s it all about? Simplification. 

* Simple by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn

Why disengaged workers take the biscuit

CookiesHere is one of my favourite stories about employee engagement. I can’t remember which book I read it in so apologies for the lack of reference.   Anyway, researchers took two groups of volunteers and placed them in separate rooms to complete a repetitive cognitive task that required concentration (something about pressing a button on a keyboard when they saw a particular set of numbers appear on a screen).   In the first room, the volunteers were greeted warmly and thanked for their participation by the researchers, who then explained the tasks and asked the group if they had any questions.   On the table in front of the volunteers sat a big plate of warm cookies and the group were told they could help themselves after completing the tasks or choosing to stop. The researchers then left the room.   In the other room, the second set of volunteers were given exactly the same task and offered an equally tasty plate of warm cookies to eat at the end.   This time, however, the researchers simply read out a list of instructions and left the room.

What happened next amazed the researchers.   Not only did the first group do much better at the cognitive task but they also stuck at the job significantly longer than the other group before tucking into the cookies.   The people who were welcomed, well briefed and invited to ask questions were more ‘engaged’ with the task – so much so that their productivity was superior and so was their willingness to see the task to the end.   They could resist the lure of the cookies far longer than the second group, who gave up pretty early.

The only difference between the two groups was in the way they were treated by the researchers. The people in the first group were treated as individuals. They were made to feel welcome and asked for their feedback and questions.   They were smiled at and thanked. And this made the difference.   Even that minor level of ‘engagement’ led to the team performing better and being more conscientious about the job they were asked to do.   The other group, with just a clinical one-way briefing, had no ‘reason why’ when it came to the task and, well, they couldn’t be bothered in the end.

This experiment highlights the very thin line between engagement and disengagement but it also shows the benefits of a smile and a kind word.   I often use this story with managers to emphasise that sometimes it’s the little things that matter.   It also offers a low cost way of testing engagement – put some warm cookies in the office on a busy day and see how fast they go!

Vision statements are like Fridays

FridayI’ve just read a book about a bloke who wakes up one morning, realises that everything on the TV and radio is bad news and then wonders where all the optimists are.   Intrigued by the question, he resolves to identify and track down the world’s biggest optimists to find out what makes them tick and why everyone else isn’t like them.   On his journey – via Bill Clinton, Archbishop Tutu, politicians, psychologists, sports stars and a fair bunch of nutters – our hero enters the world of neuroscience, transcendental meditation, high finance and religion.

Most of us, at the end of the day, tend to be optimistic about things we can control.   Most of us believe our children will go on to be successful.  Most of us think we’ll be healthy in our old age.  Most of us believe we can avoid accidents.   And as we prepare for a new year, most of us will genuinely be optimistic about achieving our new year resolutions.   But while we’re optimistic about ourselves, we’re often less so about other people.   People tend to think their own financial situation will improve even if they think the overall economy will not.   People have enormous belief in their own ability to whether storms and avoid loss.   Why is this?   And if it’s true, why do we see overt optimism as a sign of weakness or naivety?

Apparently when you ask people to rank the days in the week in terms of preference, they rate Friday higher than Sunday, even though Friday is a work day and Sunday is not.   Saturday is always tops, but why do people prefer Friday to Sunday?   The answer lies in our unique human ability to imagine.    Friday holds promise.  It offers anticipation for the weekend ahead.    Sunday may be a day of rest but we all know that lying in the back of our minds is the thought of work the next day.   I don’t know about you but I like Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day.  Christmas Eve holds magic and excitement.  And optimism.

In the workplace, optimism flows freely from boardrooms and business cases – we will achieve our vision, we will deliver the change programme, we will meet our objectives, we will deliver sustainable growth etc.   Why are leaders so optimistic?  Especially when history tells us that most change programmes fail and that most visions are never realised.   I’ve seen some ambitious business cases in my time and I can hardly think of a single one that has lived up to expectations.    One of the reasons behind this ‘blind’ optimism is that we focus purely on the things we want to change, and we assume that by changing them we’ll all be better off.   It’s that Friday feeling.

There are two problems with this.   First, while we have a natural optimism bias about things in our control, we have a natural pessimism bias about the things that aren’t.   So the people writing the business case or vision statement may well feel optimistic, but those observing from the side may not share the same excitement.   So when you try to engage the pessimists, you have your work cut out.   Secondly, when we set out on a change programme to ‘make things better’, we assume that by doing so we’ll enjoy the benefits on a quid pro quo basis (fix this blockage and we’ll be xxx amount better off).   The problem though, according to Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, is that “we underestimate how quickly and easily we adapt to new circumstances and we fail to incorporate such adaptation into our forecasts”.    We may be optimistic about starting a new job because the pay is higher.   So we focus on those things that will change (more money!) and that makes us optimistic.  However, we don’t take into account that we still have bills to pay, we still have problems to deal with, we still have to get up on a cold Tuesday morning, we still have office politics, we still have to load the dishwasher.    We may be optimistic about the weekend on a Friday but we all know that not all weekends live up to expectations.   Vision statements are like Fridays – full of hope, expectation and optimism.   But there’s always a Monday round the corner.

Abridge your strategy … and make it funny

ReducedContinuing the theme of borrowing creative insights from other worlds, on Sunday we went to watch the hilarious Reduced Shakespeare Company’s ‘The complete works of William Shakespeare – abridged’.    The premise of the show, which has been around in various formats since the eighties, is to present abridged versions of all Shakespeare’s plays in just 97 minutes.   And of course to do so an entertaining way.    It was a fantastically funny show, performed by just three very talented actors using comedy, songs, slapstick and audience participation to summarise the plots and main characters of every one of the Bard’s plays.   The previous day I took my daughter on a tour of the CBBC studios in Media City in Salford.   We saw the set and props of Horrible Histories – the hugely successful series designed to teach children about history through comedy sketches … and lots of poo and puke jokes.

I mention these two experiences because they are superb examples of using humour to engage and educate.  Strip out the theatrical context of the Reduced Shakespeare show and you have the concept of communicating a complex and detailed topic in an abridged form in a way that’s engaging.   Strip out the production side of Horrible Histories and you have a sure-fire method of engaging a very discerning audience with a subject matter they wouldn’t otherwise show an interest in.   These are issues we communicators struggle with every day.   So what can we learn from the world of entertainment?    I love the idea of abridging a company strategy or business update and turning it into a ‘performance’, with humour and interaction.    I love the idea of selling it as a serious presentation but with the word ‘abridged’ splashed across the title to draw the audience in.   I love the idea of communicating serious messages through sketches and satire.    In short, I love the idea of turning serious business information into comedy.   Very few organisations are prepared to do this.    The leap of faith is too wide for some to contemplate.

Of course, in global companies, humour is notoriously difficult to get right, but in a local context it can be so powerful.   We all like a good laugh and I so wish more companies would see the funny side of business.   Laughter brings out the best in people and it’s a proven method of getting messages to stick.    A whole generation of children in the UK know about the (Terrible) Tudors, (Vicious) Vikings and (Ruthless) Romans because of Horrible Histories.    I’m off to see a heavy production of Hamlet at the RSC in Stratford on Saturday but I already know the plot thanks to the side-splitting abridged version I saw on Sunday.   The message has stuck.   I’m engaged and I have fond memories of how I was engaged.   Isn’t that what we want from our communications?   Try it out.  Reduce your strategy.  Abridge your operating model.  And have a damn good laugh about it.

PS – If you’ve successfully used humour to communicate a serious message, let me know about it and maybe we could feature your case study here on Creative Communicator.

Why we need festivals at work

festival2I walked past my local pub this morning after dropping the car off for an MOT.   Outside the pub was a board advertising an “icons & innovations beer festival”.   When I got home, some tickets had arrived for next month’s Hay Literature Festival.   I then booked a hotel for a quick few days at the Cheltenham Science Festival and while I was doing that I had an email about this year’s Just So Festival – a wonderful weekend of creativity for children in August.    We really are becoming a nation of festival goers.   And I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of music and food festivals you could pick and choose from this summer.   Anyone for the East Anglian Guitar Festival?  Or the Cornwall Asparagus Festival?   Or the Settle Storytelling Festival?

So this got me thinking.  Why don’t we have festivals at work?   Why don’t we have the “Company X Festival of Collaboration” or the “ACME Innovation Festival”?    There’s something about the immersive experience of festivals that make them so popular.   Maybe it’s about hanging around with like-minded people.  I imagine everyone at the Cornwall Asparagus Festival has a particular fondness for, or interest in, asparagus.   Even spring vegetables can provide a common bond.   People go to music festivals not just to see their favourite band but to learn about and explore other groups and styles.    One of the highlights of our year as a family is going to Hay – five or six days of intelligent conversation, mind-expanding education and relaxation.    I learn more at the Hay Festival in one week than I do in the other 51.   And the ideas I get are endless.   When I’m at Hay, or Cheltenham, or Just-So, or a music festival, I’m 100% engaged.    So, again, why don’t we have festivals at work?

A festival is different from a one-off event or conference.  A festival provides an over-arching ‘reason why’ for a number of activities to take place.  It connects different events through a common theme and provides an ‘experience’ for attendees and participants.   A festival creates a buzz, a bond and a sense of collaboration.   Isn’t this exactly what we try to do to engage people in the workplace?   Don’t we want to provide an environment for learning, collaboration, interaction, discussion, engagement and innovation?   A work festival doesn’t have to interfere with business.   It doesn’t have to be ‘Glastonbury in Accounts’.   It could be a week-long series of lunchtime knowledge-sharing events, or a fortnight of after-work talks on relevant topics.   It could be a period of competitions, idea jams or innovation sessions.   It could be a festival of learning, with new subjects unveiled every day.   It could be a ‘CommsFest’ with daily features and presentations.    People like festivals.  They like the atmosphere, the belonging, the social interaction and the excitement.   Festivals are perfect for internal comms – imagine the concept of the settle Storytelling Festival brought in-house.   I’m a big believer in being inspired by ‘other worlds’ to bring difference and freshness to our really rather sanitised corporate environment.   That, to me, is creative communication.    I’m glad I took that walk today.  And the car passed its MOT too.  Yay!

It’s fear, not workload, that stops managers communicating

Signature:1aa0edd3f00ecb0adc8aa215f572f8061f81f2bd7ee14d34f53c48d50acdcb69I once worked for a manager who inspired me to believe I could achieve anything.   Then there was the manager who yelled at his staff and threw smartphones at them.    I remember the CEO with the charisma of a movie star and the CFO with the personality of a yoghurt.   I’ve seen them driven like Gandhi and lost like Bambi.    I’ve known managers who light up rooms and others who light up cigarettes.   In my time, I’ve worked for, followed, admired and observed managers of all shapes and sizes.   Some were natural communicators, many were not.  Some drove me to perfection, others drive me to tears.   We all know what that’s like.

Comms people often call out line managers as their biggest challenge.  Why is this?  Why are so many managers so frustratingly poor at engaging with the people they are paid to lead?    Most managers tend to think they are good communicators.   They’ll insist they talk regularly with their staff and that they take comms seriously, but then they’ll throw up excuses about time and conflicting business priorities.  Others think their comms responsibilities extend only to reading out a team briefing, announcing decisions or conducting the occasional team meeting.

I’ll tell you why so many managers don’t communicate.  They’re scared.  It’s fear, not workload, that stops them communicating.

Fear of peer judgement.   Managers are competitive and they don’t like to look weak.   They have a mental picture in their head that managers should look strong, confident and ‘in charge’.   They often become leaders of people by virtue of technical ability or time-served, and they justify their lofty appointments by talking about strategic business issues, sprinkling their language with corporate jargon and generally ‘acting senior’.     That’s what managers do isn’t it – have meetings, make decisions and display tangible evidence of their authority?   What would the other managers say if they put people and engagement above strategy and execution on their list of priorities?

Fear of looking soft.    The macho culture of many organisations mean that managers tend to consider qualities like humility, creativity and active listening as ‘too soft’.    For them, emotional intelligence is just a fancy HR buzzword and not something hard-nosed business decision makers should be taking seriously.    It takes a lot of courage to be an authentic leader – to admit to weakness, to own up to mistakes, to show emotion and ask others to do likewise.   Good communicators listen more than they talk.  They facilitate more than dictate.  They ask people about their lives, how they feel and what brings out the best in them.   They ask questions like “what can I do better” and “how can I help”.   For many managers, that’s too much to ask.

Fear of not knowing answers.  Managers, especially senior leaders, often like to avoid confrontation with ‘real people’ because they are frightened of what they might be asked.   They fear not having credible answers.  They worry about looking vulnerable.   That’s why they dread Q&As and open forums.   They haven’t yet worked out that leadership isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about knowing how to deal with the question and knowing what questions to ask in return.   It’s the same reason that leaders fear creativity.   They think it’s their job to come up with all the ideas.

Fear of getting it wrong.  We ask our managers to understand, translate, convey and ‘own’ corporate messages.  We expect them to role model values and inspire high performance.  But what if they don’t ‘get it’ themselves?  What if they don’t understand any or some of the message they are being asked to pass on with due gusto?   What if they don’t know what the acronyms mean?   You can only get so far with smoke and mirrors.    Many leaders avoid putting themselves in harm’s way by not communicating and not actively engaging with their people because they fear getting found out.

Ok, I know I’m having a bit of a downer of managers here.   I don’t mean to generalise, and I know there are some exceptional leaders and line managers in every organisation, but I do think that when managers fail to discharge their comms responsibilities it’s often a psychological rather than a practical barrier.

Ditch the surveys and start doing stuff

survey2Recognise this scenario?   A leader, or group of leaders, decide they need to do something about this thing called employee engagement.  So they give the job to a bigwig in HR to look after.   The HR person – being an HR person – gathers more HR people together to form a project team.   They bring in an outside consultancy and everyone agrees that what they need is a staff survey.   So they take many months and lots of money to decide what questions the survey should ask.   Then they launch the survey with some nicely branded posters and they use comms people to spread the word that “your opinion counts” and “now’s the chance to have your say”.   Months later the survey results come out and groups of managers go into huddles to try and work out what they mean.   Knowing that they should do something about the results (but not too much because there are more important things to do), the managers create action plans, usually involving going back out to re-survey or “drill down” (even worse … “deep dive”) into the original survey findings.   Focus groups are set up to ask people what they meant in the survey and what should be done next.    By now, probably nine or ten months have passed since the topic was first raised and absolutely diddlysquat has been done to actually improve employee engagement.  And the next annual survey is fast approaching.

I know comms and HR people obsess about measurement, but y’know, sometimes surveys aren’t the answer.   I once had a boss –  a global CEO – who insisted that the best survey tool for employee engagement is your stomach.   “I don’t need expensive surveys to tell me what my gut can tell me for nothing” he once told me.  He was partly right, I think.   You see, if you link employee engagement to a survey you psychologically align the activities with the measurement cycle.   The survey becomes the driver – “if we do this we’ll improve our scores”.   Now you might say that’s OK, because what gets measured gets done, right?   But no, the trouble with this is that surveys rarely tell you anything about employee engagement.   They give you a snapshot of employee satisfaction, and maybe a dipstick guide to the general climate, but employee engagement is much more nuanced than that.   Engagement is a very individual thing.  What engages you may not engage me.  What engaged me last week may not get me going this week.   If a worker is feeling ‘engaged’ they have a sense of fulfilment, emotional connection, creativity, autonomy, meaning and flow in their work.  The key word there is ‘sense’.  It’s not something that can be explained.    No survey is going to do it justice.

People can’t usually explain why they are engaged, or disengaged.   They often don’t even know if they’re engaged or not.  It may take leaving to realise that, actually, they were engaged where they were.   Or they may find true engagement in one role and suddenly realise what they’ve been missing.  No, the key to building engagement is doing stuff, not talking about stuff, or measuring stuff.   Companies with high engagement don’t suddenly unleash half-cocked initiatives two weeks before the annual survey.   They don’t have employee engagement as the last item on the leadership meeting agenda.  They don’t even use the words.  They just make it part of what they do every day, at all levels.    True engagement is when the goals and values of the organisation match the goals and values of the individual.   Look at the most engaged workforce in recent years – the Olympic Games Makers of London 2012.   You didn’t need a survey to tell you how engaged they were.  It was written all over their faces.   We should stop trying to put a numeric value on engagement.  How often do you measure the love you have for your children?  Or the depth to which you support a particular football team?   Employee engagement takes a lot of work to get right and it touches so many areas – environment, culture, purpose, pay, leadership, conditions, innovation, comms, direction, benefits, strategy, personal development, recognition, reputation etc – which is exactly why we need to stop wasting time asking questions and start doing something useful.