Rallying the Troops: Role of Communication in Employee Motivation

Reward and Recognition: How to motivate public servants in the 21st century, Astana Economic Forum on “Inspiring Growth: People, Cities, Economies”, on 16-17 May 2019

Basskaran Nair, Visiting Professor at Nazarbayev University, Graduate School of Public Policy
Basskaran Nair, Visiting Professor at Nazarbayev University, Graduate School of Public Policy

The perspectives shared in this presentation is based on employee motivation initiatives during merger of companies. Employees have to be rallied to appreciate and embrace the merged entity, and to give of their best for its success. All mergers are a time of heightened anxiety for all parties, in particular for employees. It almost always means retrenchment and closing down of business entities, keep the costs of labour to the minimum and justify the merger to a profit-hungry shareholder base. 

Chief executives and top management are naturally passionate about the brand of the merged entity. As cheerleaders, they tout the synergies and the successes that will come with the merger to the investment communities. Employees communication follows like a necessary evil to energise the base in the form of a series of townhall meetings both at home and abroad. Human resource staff and senior executives fly overseas to explain the rationale for the merger using the same deck of slides that were presented to the investment community. The anxieties of the employees and shareholders are different.

The focus here is related to employee motivation. CEO, senior management, human resource and communication team must market the “new-brand” to the employees. Get them charged, get them going with minimum disruption to the operations, and get them to own the new “brand.” The crux of employee communication is to ensure that messages resonate so that all in the organisation have internalized the values, mission and vision. Put it in another way, the organization has to come to terms with how it actually owns branding as an attitude, as a presence, as a state of mind where everyone is a communicator and everyone is an embodiment of the essence of the organization.

The CEO and top management’s role: Leaders today have to be cheerleaders. As one CEO said; “We spend more than half of the day preparing for, going to, coming from and actually doing work. If the work environment is challenging and stimulating, then we can certainly be passionate about our place of work and communicate this to the rest of the workforce.” In the townhall meetings to market the merged entity to employees, the strength of the employee motivation lies in the power of a frank exchange. Increasingly, the heart of the matter is the higher purpose. Many of the younger employees, along with many older ones, want to work for a company that pursues a higher purpose in addition to profits. CEOs have become acutely sensitive to this concern, namely engage and inspire employees with a vision of making a difference in the world. Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, puts it clearly: “Customers are No. 1, employees are No. 2, and shareholders are No. 3.” Higher purpose is not a side issue or fluffy topic but rather a central element of culture, people and customer strategies.

Human Relations Role: Today’s organisations need human relations more than ever before. Its more than recruitment, training and compensation. It is about creating an environment for viewing the company, the ministries and departments, as a brand. The bottom line for management and human resource is corporate value that attracts present employees and future ones. Everyone in the workplace must have experienced some kind of "change initiative." Unfortunately, employees are hardly consulted in change initiatives except in only a minority of cases.

Employees’ Role: The question is are employees just as passionate as the CEO? Are the employees equally excited about the brands of the services and the policies coming out of (for the purpose of this Forum) the public service? What must be done to make more people service cheerleaders of the organisation and the services they provide?

There are four types of employees:

  • Brand champions are storytellers who spread the brand idea (hardly or very few).
  • Brand agnostics are interested but not committed (more within this category)
  • Brand cynics are not involved with the brand idea (most like to stay in this category)
  • Brand saboteurs are working actively against the brand idea (they live, thrive and survive within the ecosystem).

Clearly every organization needs brand champions. Who are they?

In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues that “social epidemics” are driven in large part by the actions of a tiny minority of special individuals, often called influentials, (the brand champions/cheerleaders) who are unusually informed, persuasive, or well connected. The idea is intuitively compelling but it doesn’t explain how ideas actually spread. The supposed importance of influentials is either wearing, promoting, or developing whatever it is before anyone else paid attention. Anecdotal evidence of this kind fits nicely with the idea that only certain special people can drive trends.

HR needs to identify the influentials from among the employees, and harness them. People are influential because they are outspoken and gregarious. Other times because they are introspective and reflective. Sometimes they are central members of particular groups, and other times they are peripheral. The focus should be less on individual attributes but more on the importance of their network effects. Harnessed well they can create a positive environment for change initiatives, like the merged entity in Mergers and Acquisitions. Technology companies have cheerleaders; the newest jobs in the C-suite, alongside CEO, and CFO we have the CHO, or chief happiness officer. Chade-Meng Tan is Google’s chief happiness officer equivalent; his cheerleading goal is to “enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.”

Having identified them, HR can make them internal cheerleaders. How? Investing real time with them. Getting it right with them on the company’s mission and vision to be communicated internally, how well other employees have bought into this. Are the employees empowered? This is a real challenge: “Are our employees empowered for them to be our champions?” Unfortunately, the other three categories of employees will say —"Unlikely. That will be the day”. Much of the rallying of the troops will depend on some basic work culture: the time spent in trying to understand others’ perspectives; listening with an open mind and without judgement; encouraging others to voice their opinions.  What do they care about?  How do they interpret what’s going on? Kazakhstan civil service has unique features to create cheer leaders. As shown in a 2014 employee motivation survey (Zeger Van Der Wal and Assel Mussagulova, Motivations of Public Servants in Kazakhstan, ACSH, 2014),  the staff are motivated to work for a higher purpose and they trust their peers more than their superiors.

Over the last fifty years ago people were grateful to be in employment. Today with the Fourth Industrial Revolution underway, many of our present skills while crucial would be disrupted. The next generation of job skills has the potential to be more of a wildcard. Leaders of top companies are taking notice and looking to better understand how to find, hire, and cultivate the right talent. The next generation needs talent champions, leaders who understand the looming skills crisis and are doing something about it. Among the leadership skills is honing how to Rally the Troops for the higher purpose.

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Аскар Аукенов
главный редактор журнала Forbes Kazakhstan
Жанар Абдыкаримова
независимый директор АО «Фонд недвижимости «Самрук Казына»
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