The Link Between Internal Communications and Employee Engagement

Organizational internal communications have existed since the first business was formed, but it’s decidedly more complex and nuanced today as an element of the overall employee experience comprised of daily events and communications. While the employee experience is the result of a variety of inputs, so to speak, the strength of employee engagement is the result or output. One common misconception is that internal communication, a critical input, is the same as employee engagement. Let’s say right up front that it’s not. Internal communication is only an element of employee engagement but a significant one. Understanding the difference between internal communications vs. employee engagement is crucial to developing long-term productive relationships between employees and management to achieve desired outcomes, including meeting business goals and avoiding unionization 

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Separating Internal Communications and Employee Engagement 

Before exploring the link between internal communications vs. employee engagement, consider each purpose and characteristic. 

Internal Communications

At its most basic, internal communication is a process for sharing information, giving advice, and enabling employees and coworkers to do their best work and higher-ups to achieve organizational outcomes by sharing high-level guidance based on the organizational mission and values. The communication can be one-way, two-way, or group communication (i.e., update on a project team’s status). It can be face-to-face meetings, digital communications using a variety of processes, technology tools, and written communication. Everything is communicated up and down and across using all communication channels within the organization to keep employees informed and connected. 

Ideally, internal communications always support a shared understanding of the organization’s mission and goals, work purpose, and values. Internal communication does include dialogue between employees and between employees and management to achieve organizational and personal goals. However, for leadership’s internal communications to achieve the highest level of effectiveness, it should also achieve other purposes besides issuing directives, work assignments, and explanations. 

High-quality internal communications

  • Builds trust through positive communications
  • Demonstrates transparency through the open sharing of information
  • Demonstrates honesty and integrity
  • Shows support and caring for employee effort and well-being
  • Sends a message about willingness to listen to employees and coworkers (employee voice)
  • Builds commitment with employees
  • Motivates employees
  • Maintains alignment between employee effort and organizational goals

At the management level, internal communication for employees is conducted by executives, senior leaders, upper and mid-level managers, and supervisors. However, there are functions that play a role too. For example, the public or media relations function can link the external messaging to employees so that all organizational communication is consistent and well-understood and everyone remains on the same page. In addition, employees communicate with each other, especially in the flattened organizational structures that exist today in which the workforce is likely hybrid, with remote and onsite employees collaborating. 

Internal communications include communication among employees across the organization’s departments and functions and with management. Your employees discuss work and share information, but they also need a workplace voice that enables them to communicate with your leaders, including Human Resources, the CEO, and executives. One of the common grievances among employees joining unions is that they have no voice in the organization or way to communicate their issues to higher-level managers. 

Employee Engagement 

Many business consultants and researchers have defined employee engagement, but they all have common themes. Employee engagement is the strength of the psychological connection that employees feel towards their work, teams, leadership, and the organization as a whole. Employee engagement occurs on a spectrum.

  • High engagement – employer advocates who are fully committed and connected, enjoy the work and workplace, and fully support management.
  • Moderate engagement – mostly but not fully committed because of some issues but still willing to work with managers to find solutions if given the opportunity
  • Low engagement – indifferent towards the work and organization and open to resigning or finding another job
  • Disengaged – feels no connection to work or the organization and actively works against the organization.

MacLeod and Clarke analyzed the concept of employee engagement and, based on a survey, developed a definition that includes employee well-being. Though the research was conducted in 2014, their definition adds the personal human element, which is very relevant to today’s workforce.

The UK researchers defined employee engagement as “A workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being.” This definition places the responsibility on your leaders to act in a way that promotes engagement. Internal communications are one of the most important “acts” that determines the strength of employee engagement.

MacLeod and Clarke went on to say that the enablers of employee engagement are strategic narrative, engaging managers, employee voice, and integrity. Strategic is added to the narrative because as people move up the leadership ladder, communication becomes more strategic versus task oriented. In other words, employee engagement encompasses more than internal communications.

Jenni Field, International Speaker, and Business Communications Strategist at Redefining Communications, points out that internal communication can be presented engagingly, but that doesn’t mean it’s engaging. For example, a manager may ask himself what he wants his staff to think when they read an email, or she may ask herself what she wants her employees to do differently after reading a text message. The focus is on specific outcomes and not on developing employee engagement.  

Employee Engagement and the Employee Experience

Employee engagement is part of the employee experience, making employee engagement a journey and not a specific outcome for the moment. Employee engagement is determined by a host of factors

When you consider the difference between internal communications vs. employee engagement, communication is one of the most essential factors in determining employee engagement, but it’s certainly not the only one. However, the quality of internal communications influences many factors determining engagement, like shared purpose, recognition, transparency, role clarity, employee voice, and so on. 

internal communications and employee engagement

Linking Internal Communications and Employee Engagement

On the surface, if management’s internal communications sound like employee engagement, it’s because, as mentioned, internal communications are one element of employee engagement. Internal communications and employee engagement should be linked by design and through the application of leadership communication skills. 

When you compare internal communications vs. employee engagement, the broader aspect of employee engagement quickly becomes apparent. Here is a real-world example. A manager can communicate the organization’s belief that unionizing is not beneficial to employees, but the message by itself is not engaging. It’s merely informative, but internal communications can strengthen employee engagement when the processes and tools are designed to do so, and your leaders develop high-level communication skills. There is a reason that IRI Consultants recommends adding an employee feedback option on the union-themed or dark website so employees can ask questions and get answers from managers or Human Resources. Enabling feedback supports employee engagement by giving employees a voice.  

Gallup developed the Q12 employee measurement tool based on studying over 2.7 million workers. The Q12 is the list of twelve needs that your leaders can meet to increase employee engagement and maximize productivity. Internal communications play a substantial role in meeting nearly all of those needs. Following are the 12 needs. 

1. I know what is expected of me at work.

2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.

3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.

5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.

6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.

7. At work, my opinions seem to count.

8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.

9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.

10. I have a best friend at work.

11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.

12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow. 

Internal communications can help meet all the employee needs except number 10 (have a best friend at work) to increase employee engagement. Following are some guidelines for leadership communication that strengthens employee engagement. 

  • Communicate job goals and responsibilities with clarity and provide regular follow-up to ensure the employee is not having difficulties due to a lack of employee training, knowledge, or unexpected challenges.
  • Discuss the materials and equipment that the employee says are needed to do his/her best work. Avoid making assumptions about these needs. 
  • Discuss with employees their expectations and desires concerning work, giving employees the autonomy to do their best work and to show initiative, motivation, and a desire to succeed.
  • Give employees regular recognition utilizing a variety of communication methods that include employee apps, texts, emails, enterprise recognition, reward software programs, performance conversations, and other digital communication systems. Conducting in-person transforming conversations between managers and employees is also important. If some employees work remotely, using ZOOM or another meeting platform is a good option.
  • Remember that employees have personal lives and are balancing work and life. They are not just “employees.” They are people with psychological, physical, and social needs. Communicating sincere caring for the whole person indicates a leader with emotional intelligence.
  • Encourage employees to take advantage of employee training opportunities offered by the company. Employees can also take on stretch assignments and join a project team. Leadership that encourages employee development by discussing career plans and a development strategy for reaching goals is engaging the employee and reducing organizational turnover. 
  • Employee voice is a major need today. Remember that many of the union organizing campaigns taking place today are founded on this employee need. Employees need to get and give feedback, participate in organizational decision-making, and have access to communication channels for asking questions and sharing ideas and issues. 
  • Your leaders need to regularly reinforce the organization’s mission and values through words and actions. It’s crucial to help employees keep their work in alignment with the mission, which in turn helps them understand the value of their work contributions. 

Effective leadership communication applies to all employees. It includes helping employees develop strengths and competencies and improve on weaknesses. Communicating work quality standards will drive employees to do quality work. Discussing performance reviews is a key strategy for assessing, motivating, and guiding employees as long as the reviews are structured to meet the needs of modern-day employees. 

Performance reviews can be formally delivered at pre-established times like quarterly, semi-annually, or annually. Many organizations are moving away from that schedule, and leaders hold weekly or bi-weekly conversations instead. They may use platforms that offer two-way feedback on a routine basis. 

  • Leadership communication also should help employees learn and grow. The communication should solicit feedback to discover an employee’s interests, work goals, and creativity. 
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Positive Leadership Internal Communication Training 

Internal communications are strategic in that it has a long-term goal of supporting strong employee engagement. It has many parts that include digital communications, personal interactions, and relationship building. It should not be a random process. Too often, people move into leadership positions without a full understanding of internal communications vs. employee engagement, so they flounder or make mistakes. Some mistakes can not only harm employee engagement; they can lead to disengagement, which leaves a wide opening for a labor union to begin an organizing campaign with the help of unhappy employees.

Positive internal communications should begin at the top because senior leaders set the tone for the workplace culture. Your managers and supervisors are the people who interact with employees daily, so they are the ones who put an employee engagement process into action. 

Do your managers and supervisors understand the difference between internal communications vs. employee engagement? Do your leaders know the key employee engagement drivers and how to leverage internal communications to support employee engagement? Do you hold your leaders accountable for results as evidenced by things like productivity, turnover, and employee engagement scores on employee surveys? Contact our team of experts at IRI Consultants to help your organization develop an internal communications strategy that includes leadership training for building an engaged workforce. 

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.