Maya Angelou – Employee Engagement – the role of communication

communicationThe realisation that the first anniversary of Maya Angelou’s death is fast approaching reminded me of one of her best known quotes.

“People will forget what you said.
People will forget what you did.
But people will never forget how you made them feel”.

As much as I agree whole-heartedly with the sentiment expressed in the last line, I have difficulty accepting the rationale upon which this conclusion is based.  How people feel about their family, friends, supervisor or the organisation for which they work, is heavily influenced by what people say and even more so by what people do – or don’t do.  Your emotional state is not an independent variable, it’s an outcome, conditioned by many factors.

One of the more disturbing features of work life in the 21st century is the generally low level of employee engagement.  The latest Gallup research for 2014 has the overall percentage of “Engaged” employees at 31.5%.  Those “Not Engaged” totalled 51% with the remaining 17.5% “Actively Disengaged”.

Now engagement, like one’s emotional state, is not an independent variable.  It is the outcome of clear goals and objectives and the strategies to achieve them; of organisational alignment; of an empathetic attitude to the management of change; of leadership at all levels of the organisation and the fostering of teams and teamwork.  And the catalyst for making all this happen is communication at an enterprise and personal level.

Many years ago, I worked for a multi-national chemical company and the new CEO instituted a quarterly informal gathering called Face-to-Face where he and his fellow directors took impromptu questions from the staff on a whole variety of topics on the current and future well being of the company and its staff.  As an alternative to raising questions from the floor, one could write them down beforehand and give them to the company PR manager.  I penned about six questions and four were addressed by the CEO at the meeting before time ran out.  So imagine my surprise when on the following day, I was told by the CEO’s PA that he intended to come down from his lofty perch on the top floor and answer my remaining questions.  Sitting on a borrowed typist’s chair, this is what he did and at the end of each response, he asked me whether he had fully answered the question I had raised.  I don’t remember my questions nor the detail of his responses but I do remember him asking me if I was satisfied with his answer.  I will never forget his act in coming to see me.  It made a deep impression and certainly raised my spirits and made me more optimistic about my own and the company’s future.  Unfortunately, his action did not serve as an example to my more immediate superiors and so, disenchanted by the lack of a clear strategy and the absence of those other factors mentioned in the previous paragraph, I resigned 18 months later.

There is no doubt in my mind that what managers do is the key determinant of how their staff feel.  Let me give you three further examples.  A Nursing Unit Manager or NUM at a public hospital, much loved and respected by her staff, makes a point of helping our with bed making and other menial tasks if her staff are under time pressures.  The head of the NSW ambulance service, a trained paramedic, rosters himself on at least one ambulance shift a month to take the pulse of what it’s like on the frontline of the service he’s responsible for.  Rob Fyfe, former CEO of Air New Zealand used to act as an impromptu steward when flying on an Air New Zealand flight and invited Air New Zealanders with varying degrees of seniority to spend a day with him to observe the work of the CEO firsthand.  This is communication at its most powerful.  These people know how their actions impact on the morale of their staff.  Nevertheless, they are also aware that the “feel good” factor may be a transitory one if not complemented and supported by people centred planning and those key execution factors.

Maybe Maya Angelou’s quote should be modified to read as follows:

“People will remember what you said.
People will remember what you did.
And people will never forget how you made them feel”.


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