We spend a lot of time talking about employee engagement. Building and promoting an engaging work environment is such a critical job for leaders in HR that we cannot help but talk about it. Yet there is one topic that is equally as critical although less talked about—at least not directly: alignment. And, as Derek Irvine pointed out recently on the TLNT blog having engagement without alignment is fairly useless. So, how do you create alignment among your employees?
We should begin by defining our terms. Alignment is the understanding of and agreement on organizational goals by all of your employees. You can be engaged without being aligned (working excitedly on many disparate projects that all have unaligned goals) or alignment without engagement (trudging toward some sort of success about which everyone agrees but no one cares).
The real task is to take engagement and apply it to alignment so that all employees are driven toward working for a unified outcome. Irvine has his own suggestions for handling improper alignment. For the highly engaged but improperly aligned employee, he suggests a prioritization of projects and promotion of a clear understanding of how those projects are tied to bigger company goals. It is vital that employees know how what they are doing is helping the company achieve its goals.
For the employee who is highly aligned but disengaged, Irvine says the challenge is tougher. He calls these people “worst case scenario employees” and says that, luckily, they are few and far between. But for those who may have slipped into your ranks, you may need to regain their buy-in and fix their poor performance through a series of coaching moments, trainings, and improvement plans.
In both of Irvine’s solutions, creating aligned employees really comes down to one thing: transparent and open communication.
A Culture of Communication
It may sound simple, but having a corporate culture that is built around open and honest communication can really be the key to not only engaging, but also aligning your employees.
As Irvine pointed out, people want to know where they fit into the picture of company success. Everyone knows that a business is like a machine, all of the parts need to be working together for it to run efficiently. Put another way, everyone needs to be moving in the same direction if you ever want to create momentum. The only way you will get employees to do that is to remind them how what they are doing day to day is contributing to the overall goals of the business.
Talking Through the Tough Times
It is not fair to blame a lack of communication on nefarious motives, even though that is what some employees would probably like to do. In the majority of cases, a large conspiracy to keep information out of the hands of employees is pretty unlikely. More often than not, executives choose not to share information because they do not think employees at lower levels would necessarily have need for that type or amount of information. Or they do not want to create unnecessary worry if the information to be shared requires a certain amount of context or prefacing to appear good.
However, that may be the time when a culture that values open communication is the most beneficial. That is because open communication with employees at all levels builds respect. If an employer respects an employee enough to share information honestly with them, then the employee may feel like he or she can be honest with the management. When all of the cards (or at least all of the relevant cards) are on the table, no one needs to worry about someone bluffing. During tough times, when it would be easy to criticize company leaders for perceived failures, it is this respect that can help making and announcing measures like restructuring — even layoffs — much easier.
When a company has a culture of communication, where employees understand business decisions long before the decisions are made, employees who are affected by a restructuring or layoff may say things like, “While I’m obviously very disappointed that my job was eliminated, I understand why it happened.”
That is because they will have seen that every step was taken to avoid this situation. They will have seen that these moves were a last resort, and, hopefully, they will appreciate that the company is doing what it can to take care of them and help them with their career transition. A potentially bitter former employee who might have lashed out publicly or on social media now is a former employee who, while sad or maybe frustrated, understands.
So, Irvine is right. Engagement and alignment are both critical to company success, and building both relies on a culture of communication. What are you doing to build that in your business?