Who Needs Engagement When An E-mail Will Do?

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Communication is often the only thing that leaders and change agents can think of when it comes to creating engagement.

They are often particularly fond of slides and email. Often these presentations go unread or are skim-read at best. Over the last fifteen years, I have never met anyone who has read one of these presentations and been motivated by them to change.

Most people see them as, at best, a necessary evil. Their overuse springs from a mind-set that if we put the case as logically as possible, then people will buy-in and take the appropriate set of actions. Will they, really?

A high number of organisations have become heavily reliant on written communications – this goes directly against the human need for dialogue. We respond to two-way communication, so finding a way to open up conversation is a crucial step to powerful engagement processes.

Listen to people. What they write is seldom what they think. What they say in public (social platforms included) may not be what they truly believe in and relate to.  

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak


For anyone, in whatever role in the organisation, but especially for those who find themselves in a leadership or change management position, there are some very simple points they need to be aware of:

1. People value dialogue and conversation

Try and avoid going to all meetings with detailed, prepared presentations. They inhibit dialogue. Initiate a conversation with people. When I was working on the turnaround of an asset management company, we used a concept called ‘Bring Your Lunch’.

Basically it meant anyone who was interested in the change/issue could come to join us for a sandwich at lunch. You would talk for no more than five minutes about the change and then invite people to talk, share ideas and raise objections. People felt they had a voice and were being listened to. It wasn’t a ‘silver bullet’ but it was an early part of building acceptance of the change or the issue faced by the organisation.

2. Leaders need to demonstrate a real commitment to communication and be involved in the creation of the communication strategy

One of my many early scar tissues in change and issues management comes from building change plans with my project team and then presenting them to executive teams. I would get lots of nodding heads and comments about “We are right behind you” only to find out later in the process they were right. They were miles behind me and I was on my own!

Co-creation is very critical here. It can be done expertly and quickly but, generally, the more the executives play a role in building the plan, the more they will be invested in delivering it. Avoid gaps between what leaders ‘say’ and what they ‘do’. Leader communication needs to be consistent with their actions. People will pay particular attention to the actions and words of the leader in deciding what to do.

3. Tailor messages to the receiver’s perspective

We often talk in a language no one further down our organisations understands. They often also see the issues differently to us. This can be because of different interests, history, culture or experiences. It could be because of where they are in their life, for example they have just left college or they are nearing retirement.

But it is our job to speak to those differences. If you can connect to them you have an opportunity to get your message across.

4. Seek feedback and, where possible, take it on board

One of my clients had a global roll-out of a change a few years ago. It was cascaded down through regions to the countries. Two weeks later, an agency telephoned a sample of front-line workers in each country to ask them what knew about the change.

This survey provided a wealth of information on where countries had successfully communicated change. Countries that hadn’t were then asked to re-deliver the communication and were given coaching to help them be more effective.

My last piece of advice comes from Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, physicist, inventor and writer (1623-1662). He said:

I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.

in Lettres Provinciales

This quote tells us all two things about what we need to do:

  1. Keep all messages simple
  2. Think long and hard about what you want to convey AND how it will be conveyed.

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