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Crispin Manners

Crispin Manners is Chief Executive of Onva Consulting and Chairman of The Employee Engagement Alliance.

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ITL #231 Employee engagement: wrapping communications in a SCARF framework

2 months, 3 weeks ago

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Personalised communication that addresses innate social needs plays a major role in keeping employees happy and productive. By Crispin Manners.



Thankfully for all those advocates of the business benefits of engaged and energised employees, there is increasing proof that employee engagement pays off. This article shows how engagement translates into revenue for Best Western Hotels. There are also a wide range of reports that point to the gulf in performance between companies with and without engaged employees.

The Employee Engagement Alliance contains a number of these reports and other statistics in its Insights section. One by KPMG  shows, amongst other things, a 51.9% difference in company income growth between companies with and without engaged employees. It also reported that 53% more staff understand how to meet customers’ needs and profit grew by 17% compare to nil.  

This all looks very compelling. And we’re seeing increasing numbers of organisations invest in all sorts of employee initiatives – from reward and recognition to wellbeing. These are great things to do, but every time we carry out employee feedback there is always one issue at the top of the employees’ wish-list – better communications. This doesn’t mean having another ‘All Hands’ or a more regular newsletter. It’s much more personal than that. Employees want their organisation to do two things:

  • Make the company Purpose clearer and more relevant to customers
  • Explain how the work they do, on a daily basis, contributes to achieving that Purpose.

In my experience, many companies invest a lot of time describing what they do – and calling that their Purpose.  These messages rarely make explicit the value they deliver to customers. And this causes problems for employees in all functions.

If you’re a software developer and it’s not clear why a new feature will benefit a customer, why should you have enthusiasm about building it? If you’re a salesperson and you can’t explain the value buying from you will add, then your job just got harder and less fulfilling.  

Even if the Purpose is clear and compelling at a high level, employees tell us through their feedback that it becomes less clear at a personal level. This is because their line manager doesn’t communicate in a way that makes it personal to them.

Causes of breakdown

There are usually two factors behind this breakdown in communication. Firstly, many managers do not adapt their communication style to meet the preferred style of the team member concerned. Secondly, they don’t provide enough information to achieve full understanding about what is required and then buy-in to achieving it.

And this is where the SCARF in the title comes in.

In the old world of command and control management, this kind of personalised communication would have been seen as unnecessary. All you had to do was tell people what to do and if they didn’t like it….

Fortunately, the field of neuroscience is now providing us the reasons why personalised communication is an essential requirement if you want employees to be productive. It shows that we automatically (and very quickly) decide if someone is a ‘friend’ or a ‘foe’.

I won’t go into all the science about the reactions this creates in our brains, but suffice to say, if the communications style of a manager or colleague triggers a ‘foe’ reaction then an employee will automatically go on the defensive and this will impact productivity. On the other hand if the manager triggers a friend reaction there can be a marked improvement in productivity.

So what you say, and particularly how you say it, really does matter. One science paper shows why triggering a friend response at work is so important, with this statement: ‘Engagement is a state of being willing to do difficult things, to take risks, to think deeply about issues and develop new solutions.’

Social needs

Fortunately, David Rock, a leading neuroscientist, has devised a very helpful framework you can use to guide what you say. He calls this the SCARF-model. SCARF is based on five social needs our brains have: Status, CertaintyAutonomyRelatedness and Fairness.

I like SCARF because it makes sense of why employees say they want their company Purpose to be clearer and more relevant to customers and, why they want to understand how the work they do contributes to achieving that Purpose.

Status refers to our social need to understand where we fit because how we are viewed by our colleagues really matters. Feeling like you, or your department, are not essential to the success of the company can negatively impact performance. On the other hand, feeling like you make a difference to the company and its customers can trigger a greater sense of capability and energy.

A clear sense of Purpose that explains where people ‘fit’ – their Status – is therefore vital to personal performance.

Certainty refers to the human brain’s need to know what will happen next. We all want to know what actions will deliver a safe outcome and what actions won’t. If things aren’t clear and predictable, it creates anxiety, drains energy and makes it harder to solve problems. Understanding the company’s Purpose is therefore essential to giving employees Certainty about where the company is going.

If line managers explain what is required, and why it will deliver the required result, this gives people the ‘certainty’ they are looking for. It gives them the feeling: ‘I know exactly how to handle this situation’. Once you focus on creating certainty, you start to realise how your communications behaviour can make a big difference. For example, meetings that do not have clear outcomes, and a clear explanation of what will happen next, create uncertainty. An email with an instruction that doesn’t explain why a task is important (how it will deliver against the company Purpose) creates uncertainty.

Autonomy refers to our brain’s desire to feel we have choices about what to do and not to do. We all like to feel that we have some level of control over our environment and circumstances. Neuroscience studies have shown that feeling like we can make some autonomous decisions can increase motivation and engagement by up to five times.

This isn’t about letting employees choose what they do every day. But it is all about making people feel that they know enough about what needs to be done and how to do it that they feel they are allowed to take their own decisions; to be proactive if you like. The famous saying: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime is a perfect example of Autonomy in action. It shows why effective managers allocate time to act as a coach, i.e. taking the time to explain how things are done.

Relatedness refers to our need to feel safe with other people and to feel that we are with friends. Again, this may all seem a bit soft. Do we really need to like everyone we work with?  A study by UCLA suggests we do. It shows that social rejection triggers the same reaction in the brain as physical pain. So, an ill-chosen remark by a line manager, or simply not having regular communication with a line manager, can make people feel like they are on the ‘outer’. The failure by a line manager to carry out a personal appraisal, in a way that shows they have thought about the employee, is a good example of failing to meet the need for Relatedness.

Fairness refers to our need to be treated fairly. According to Rock, being treated unfairly (like Relatedness) activates the part of the brain that registers physical pain or pleasure. So being treated unfairly really does hurt. It is one reason why people often go to great lengths to right wrongs. It is therefore essential for managers to think about what they say, or write, and check that it will be seen as fair beforehand.  

If we really want people to be engaged at work we need to put effective communication at the heart of our employee engagement strategy and action. Employees have consistently told us where to focus – explaining how their actions will make a difference to a Purpose that inspires engagement.

To achieve this outcome we will need to tailor our communications behaviour to every individual. To make this as simple as possible, I recommend you wrap your employee engagement communications in a SCARF framework. The results will be transformational.


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