Internal Communication and Employee Engagement

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This paper takes a broad look at internal communication and employee engagement theory and suggest how they can be better integrated.


Internal communication and organisational employee engagement: an integrated approach Kevin RuckLancashire Business School, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK

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IntroductionCommunication inside organisations is recognised as a critical factor in organisational performance. Salem (2008) outlines seven communication reasons why organisations fail to change that include insufficient communication, distrust, poor interpersonal communication skills, and conflict avoidance. Daly, Teague and Kitchen (2003, p. 153) claim that research indicates that up to 70 per cent of change programmes fail and poor internal communication is seen as the principal reason for such failure. However, despite the importance of internal communication, it is said to be an under-researched field. Academics such as Grunig (1992, p. 557) and Argenti (1996, cited in Welch and Jackson, 2007) point to the lack of theoretical understanding and research on internal communication. Similarly, Smidts et al (2001, cited in Welch and Jackson, 2007) highlight that internal communication is a rather neglected discipline. Waymer and Ni (2009, p. 11) state that Employee relations is an important area of public relations. Yet it often goes understudied and undervalued because public relations does not have primary responsibility for internal communication. At the same time, employee engagement is also recognised as a critical factor in organisational performance. MacLeod and Clarke, (2009, p. 34) claim that employee engagement generates better financial performance in the private sector and better outcomes in the public sector. According to Gallup (2006), in addition to profitability, other benefits of employee engagement include higher customer advocacy and higher productivity. The gap between potential and actual benefit is however, significant. A study for CIPD (Truss et al, 2006, p. xi) found that only 35 per cent of UK employees were actively engaged with their work. This paper examines internal communication from two different traditions of theory; human communication theory and public relations theory. It then examines employee engagement from psychological (work) theory and practitioner based research. Distinctions are drawn between consultancy and practitioner research (which has tended to dominate the fields) and academic research. It argues that internal communication is the golden thread that holds the potential for significant increases in levels of employee engagement. The key to unlocking this potential is to take a stakeholder approach to internal communication, one that embraces a concept of informed employee voice. This emphasises a focus on employees and their communication needs rather than a top-down management perspective that typifies much practice. Finally, it synthesises theory into a new integrated approach to internal communication and employee engagement that has practical implications for measurement and management.

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Broad theories of internal communication Before looking specifically at internal communication theory, it is informative to explore it first from a broad perspective. In doing so, it is acknowledged that Scholars have made many attempts to define communication, but establishing a single definition has proved impossible and may not be very fruitful (Littlejohn and Foss, 2008, p. 3). This paper adopts Littlejohn and Foss (2008, pp. 24-25) requirements of theory that incorporate four aspects; philosophical assumptions, concepts, explanations and principles. Subsequent internal communication and employee engagement theories are reviewed with these aspects in mind with an emphasis on the fourth aspect, principles (a principle is a guideline that enables you to interpret an event, make judgments about what is happening, and then decide how to act in the situation, (Littlejohn and Foss, 2008, p. 19)). As Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson (2008, pp. 5-8) observe, management research is distinctive from other social scientific research and there is often an expectation that research will lead directly to action. In a seminal text on communication, Littlejohn and Foss (2008) outline seven traditions of human communication; semiotic, phenomenological, cybernetic, sociopsychological, sociocultural, critical and rhetorical. This is not a complete list and is based on Craigs (1999) metamodel of communication theory. Each tradition has relevance for internal communication. Littlejohn and Foss (2008, p. 55) highlight the sociopsychological, cybernetic, sociocultural and critical as being the contributory traditions for organisations. These four traditions are similar to Bryant and Heaths (2000, pp. 305-8) identification of four paradigms; (a) structural functionalism, (b) psychological, (c) interpretivism, and (d) systems interaction which are reviewed briefly below. Structural functionalism prioritises information flow and the accuracy and clarity of messages themes that are highlighted again later on in this paper. It also raises issues of communication underload and overload that impact commitment (Heath and Bryant, 2000, p. 312). However, the approach is focused on identifiable flows, when a lot of information flows across organisations in informal ways. It is based on rationality when people are often irrational and ambiguity in communication is to be expected. Furthermore, it does not address issues of tacit knowledge or silo team management that often mitigate against information flow. Structural functionalism can be linked to systems interaction which is based on the theory of organisations as systems and sub-systems that are hierarchically arranged. In essence, this is an input-output paradigm that informs stakeholder theory which is also reviewed in more detail later. One drawback of systems thinking is that it overemphasises formal processes within organisations, when, as Wheatley (2006, p. 144) suggests that, Life uses networks; we still rely on boxes. But even as we draw our boxes, people are ignoring 3 Copyright Kevin Ruck

them and organising as life does, through networks of relationships. The psychological paradigm prioritises the individual in the organisation in terms of role and performance. The organisation itself has a personality that is a reflection of what employees think about themselves within the organisation. In this approach the organisation is a communicative system based around norms and values. It is similar to interpretivism which stresses the importance of social reality and shared meaning created through stories and rituals and symbolism that enable people to coordinate work. This is what Boje (2008, pp. 100-103) refers to as strategy narrative. However, as Boje (2008, p. 102) observes, Many stakeholders are not included in the strategy of writing of the examples reviewed of Nike, McDonalds and IBM. The psychological and interpretivist paradigms are largely silent on the question of power in the way that the organisations personality is developed and the associated moulding of employees to required norms and values. All four paradigms are based on academic, rather than practitioner based research. Though strong on conceptualisations of internal communication, they are light on a discussion of the practical implications. Dainton and Zelley (2005) also explore more general aspects of communication theory that apply to organisations, such as intrapersonal communication, interpersonal communication, group communication, culture, persuasion, leadership, organizational communication and mediated communication. According to Dainton and Zelley (2005, pp. 174-5) organizational communication has three functions: relationship (socialisation), organizing (guidance and control), and change. Four theories are selected at the organizational level of analysis: organizational identification and control, Scheins organizational culture model, structuration theory, and Weicks organizing theory. These are all useful approaches to understanding internal communication, yet again they fall short of meeting Littlejohn and Fosss (2008, p. 25) final principles criteria for theory in that guidelines for action are not provided. Theories of communication within organisations are linked to theories of organisation and management. Heath and Bryant (2000, pp. 302-8) outline the focus on social scientific approaches to management in the 20th century that are linked to the sociopsychological tradition and a classical management philosophy. This emphasises the individual from behavioural, cognitive and biological dimensions and is associated with a scientific bent that includes concepts of persuasion and understanding and the processing of information. It reflects a command and control approach to management and is translated into a top down only approach to communication, which, if left to dominate an organisation leads to disengagement. A cybernetic tradition extends this thinking by introducing a social 4 Copyright Kevin Ruck

dimension to the formation of structures and networks, with an emphasis on how communication creates organisational structure. It is centred in Weicks (1995) theory of sense-making, Taylors (2004) discourse as action, and systems theory (described above systems interaction by Heath and Bryant (2000, p. 308)). In contrast, the sociocultural tradition incorporates structuration theory (based on Giddens), organizational control theory, and organisational culture theory. These all point to the importance of the character of the organisation at a more macro level rather than individual or group/network, consisting of the shared values and practices (explicit and implicit) that affect what employees do. The critical tradition also takes a sociocultural view, however, it is focused more sharply on the power relations and ideologies that communication is used to serve the interests of managers over other employees. Critical thinking adds an important consideration to internal communication and is an aspect that is often ignored. A stakeholder approach, as suggested by Welch and Jackson (2007), with a focus on employee needs, begins to address communication power imbalances within organisations. Although Heath and Bryant (2000, pp. 304-5) highlight the way that productivity improves when employees are involved socioemotionally in their jobs, this is the nearest that the discussion of broad theories of internal communication gets to a link with employee engagement, perhaps because employee engagement is primarily seen as work related, not communication related. This is an omission that recurs in some other areas of both academic and practitioner based research. A greater appreciation of the sociality of organisations has led to a body of academic organisational communication work that examines the way that communication constitutes organisation (Putnam, Nicotera and McPhee, 2009, pp. 1-9); Communication and organisation are not equivalent concepts per se, but they are mutually constitutive. The theory that communication is constitutive of organising (CCO) is founded on four core processes that are called flows, described by McPhee and Zaug (2009, p. 33) as a kind of interactive communication episode, usually amounting to a multi-way conversation or text passage... (see table 1).


Who are we? Socialisation,

Typified in job-seeking and recruitment,

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identification, selfpositioning.

a process of ongoing reputation and courtship, power-claiming and spokesmanship. Official documents, decision making and planning forums, announcements, organisation charts, manuals, employee surveys and feedback. This flow recognises that organizational self structuring directives can never be completely understood. It emphasises the way that people co-ordinate to solve problems. This flow is set at a more macro level, where communicators are boundary spanners building an image of the organisation as a viable relational partner.

Organizational self structuring

What rules do we operate by here? Managerial activities.

Activity coordination

What work are we doing together? Interactions that serve to align or adjust local work activities.

Institutional positioning

What external forces provide legitimacy and what kinds of communication are necessary to please them? External communication.

Table 1 Four flows, McPhee and Zaug (2009, p. 33) This perspective on internal communication provides an alternative view of the different typologies of internal communication. It is based not on forms, structures, networks, norms, values or power, but on the conversations that lie behind them. As the approach brings together aspects from all four of Bryant and Heaths paradigms reviewed above, it is open to philosophical challenge based on the extent that the different philosophies underpinning the paradigms can be combined. However, the strength of the theory is that it reinforces Cherrys (1978, p. 23) observation that internal communication may not follow formal structures and the organisation as a social organism may determine alternative mechanisms and groupings, what Cherry calls the true communication network. As Tourish and Hargie (2009, pp. 5-6) point out, the linguistic turn is now focusing attention on the importance of language in a move away from communication theory that has been focused on simply making and sending messages.

Public relations theory and internal communicationExcellence theory 6 Copyright Kevin Ruck

In 1984, Grunig and Hunt argued that a new era of internal communication had emerged, described as open reflecting their two-way symmetric model, developed as part of an Excellence Theory of public relations. This is an extension of Cherrys (1978, p. 17) definition of true communication that is concerted, co-operative and directed toward some goal. According to Botan and Hazleton (2006, p. 4), public relations is best understood as an applied social science and Most scholars would agree that Symmetrical/Excellence Theory is, at least, potentially a paradigmatic theory. Not all scholars agree and excellence theory is a contested approach with the most controversial element being two-way symmetric communication based on mutual dialogue as a model of excellence. The locus of academic debate has tended to be external communication, rather than internal, though more than 26 years ago, Grunig and Hunt (1984, pp. 244-5) highlighted a preoccupation with technique that leads to a conclusion that A great deal of money is spent on achieving a degree of journalistic slick which does little in communicating to employees but does much to satisfy the egos of communications technicians. In contrast, a two-way approach entails making publications more employee-centred than management centred although this in itself is not dialogical, so Grunig and Hunt (1984, p. 246...


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