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Did the Atlanta Falcons lose the Super Bowl because their employee engagement scores were lower than the New England Patriots? Maybe… but likely not. Their HR team will likely look at these metrics at some point to see if they could have done anything differently to help a better outcome or contribute to the winning outcome, respectively.

But both teams didn’t suffer from an “engagement” problem. They had a communications problem at different points throughout the game.

When we survey for engagement just once a year, we’re looking at things like: are our employees present; want to be there; with “us;” satisfied and happy with the work they do and with their boss; and so on. Survey results, by their very nature, are a moment in time – a reflection of what’s happening right at this moment combined with what had led up to that moment.

When we look at the Falcons, they were all communicating and on the same page during the first three quarters (non-football peeps, stay with me for a minute). They were engaged, present, have a common goal, “in the moment,” and were executing to the best of their abilities. They were as HR would say, highly engaged… and therefore positioned for success.

But in an instant, the tides shifted. With one play, momentum shifted the most highly engaged from one team to the other. And just like that, the Patriots shifted into being highly engaged. You could visibly see it on both sides – the energy, the positivity, the will to win, the camaraderie – it’s how football players show their “employee engagement.”

While your employees are not competing in the Superbowl every day, they likely have the same engagement experience as both teams did this year.

And it’s not an engagement problem like we keep approaching it as, it’s an HR communications problem.  

In other words, HR is just as much a contributor to low engagement (or false engagement) results, as leaders are. As hard as we try to increase engagement and move the needle in the right direction by using big sweeping “engagement activities” or annual (heck even pulse) surveys to showcase our efforts, we consistently miss the daily opportunities to create true engagement.

How We Mess It Up

When I work with HR departments, the first thing I always ask to see if their last five to 10 emails that they’ve sent out to their employees, regardless of what we’re focusing on together. From there, I want to see all of the other ways that HR touches their employees – the various channels and types of communications they push out or allow employees to pull from.

This is the baseline for the lens in which traditional employee engagement results are then evaluated on.

HR has a very unique position within organizations – they are the hub that touches and interacts with every other department, giving us the opportunity to influence more employees throughout a company. But we tend to fail at this with the everyday opportunities we have, for one of three reasons:

  1. We have a “communications professional” writing our messages;
  2. We write our own messages without any communications “expertise;” or
  3. We don’t keep engagement as a driving force to our messages (and instead push the HR “agenda”).

Likely, the category above you fall into is dependent on the size of your company and the value your HR leader places on creating meaningful connections with your employees. But regardless of the above perceived roadblocks, you have the opportunity and capability to influence engagement.

Because the main problem we universally have, is that we’re so focused on the employee engagement numbers/surveys/activities, etc. around BIG Employee Engagement, we’re not doing a good job at using our everyday messaging to drive the long-tail of engagement.

The Long-Tail of Engagement

Long-tail is a term I’m borrowing from Marketing – simplified, it means that the efforts and investment that you put in today, will make a bigger impact in the long-run than it will now, but the efforts will add significant value with the tail arrives. Think of a hockey stick approach to results – in the short-term, results will be more flat-lined, increasing in small increments, but then at a turning point, the results will sky rocket.

Engagement today is all about the short-term: how engaged are we right this moment? What are the low-hanging fruit activities or best practices that can increase engagement now, and so on?

But this approach only gives you momentary results – and not true engagement. HR needs to focus on the long-tail of engagement, which isn’t an easy request in today’s insta-everything world.

You are uniquely positioned to change that though – and while it may seem “smaller” than a big sweeping trendy engagement activity, the results will be real and longer lasting.

Do this Now

First, take back control of your communications – you may not be able to write or send your company-wide messages, but you do have the ability to influence them (and greatly change the emails you do send out). With each and every message, think engagement first. Here’s what that looks like:

Ask “so what” before writing your message. Engagement is all about creating connection – and the easiest way to do that is to not waste people’s time. Consider why the employee(s) would care about your message before you write it – and be sure that is crystal clear in your writing.

Remove all HR speak. No one outside of HR knows or cares to know the various things you do or what they’re called. They want to know what’s important to them – so remove all of HR speak from everything you send, even things that you think are “well-known” outside of HR. Instead, relate to your employees like you would a friend who works in say, Engineering – removing all company and HR specific jargon, to deliver the actual message.

Speak and treat your employees like people. It seems like many of us forgot that our employees are people… humans with lives outside of work, families, problems, issues, goals, dreams, desires, hobbies, and so on. Our messages sound like we’re talking to zombies or computers. Instead, focus on how you would describe the “thing” you want them to know, as you would during a phone call or to a friend. The easiest way to engage your employees, is for them to believe you look at them as people, not as cogs.