Unlocking organizational communication: Five ways to ignite employee engagement

It’s never been easier to communicate at speed and scale. AI tools are making lighter work of drafting, editing, synthesis, sentiment analysis, and so much more. They allow us to produce scroll-stopping video objects and beautifully cropped, glowing images. And, of course, we have a hitherto unimaginable ease of connection on near-ubiquitous platforms. This should be a golden age for organizational communications.

So why is it that our report, The State of Organizations 2023, found that only 25 percent of respondents say their organizations’ leaders are engaged, passionate, and truly inspiring?

Great leadership communication has always been difficult. Now, when it should surely be easier, it’s even tougher and more complex. Here we explore what lies at the heart of that difficulty and offer a short set of principles for rebuilding the connection between leaders and their teams.

What’s the core challenge?

It’s hard for humans to express themselves effectively in any complex environment, because when a speaker or writer knows more than the listener or reader, that deficit in understanding can very quickly become a surfeit of noise. As Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella eloquently remarks in CEO Excellence, the top job can be lonely precisely because of this “information asymmetry.”

Leaders have to choose with extreme care how they sequence new information to get as much as possible across. In this way, less really can be more—at least in terms of what audiences hear, remember, and act on. Focusing on the quality and veracity of a few core messages yields much better outcomes than throwing in everything, with little taken away.

What has made this task so much harder?

Getting our own signal right has always been a challenge, but now there’s more noise than ever before. The people with whom we wish to communicate are being deluged with content at every turn. That makes it hard to get any kind of interest at all, let alone the sustained attention audiences need to take on board new perspectives, ways of working, or a change in behaviors. But, of course, this is precisely the type of attention we most value in our readers and listeners. We want them to open their hearts and minds as much as they do their eyes and ears.

Although it’s a challenge, great communication in organizations does occur and it does create lasting change. If you ask people about the most memorable moments of their work lives, they’ll often include a moment of effective communication. After all, for 25 percent of the people our colleagues surveyed for The State of Organizations, it’s the norm with their leaders. If only this could be true for more.

Unlocking engagement through organizational communication

What have we observed in our work with our clients and since the report was produced just over a year ago?

Primarily, it’s that to build lasting relationships, leaders must constantly recalibrate and adapt their communications to ensure each important interaction creates transitive experiences that have an effect on the audience—whether that be to inspire or engage—and move people to positive action. They are always leaning into the future. This is organizational communication at its best, a superpower.

In this article, we look more deeply at The State of Organizations and combine this with insights from conversations with CEOs, chief communications officers, and chief people officers. We’ve identified five practices for engaging, inspiring, and communicating with teams.

  • Embed communications at the core of your role, choosing your key messages wisely
  • Talk in your audience’s language
  • Converse with, not at, your audience
  • Make technology your assistant, not your boss
  • Always bring it back to purpose

One or two practices alone are good but not great. Taken together, the five intersect with and reinforce one another.

Embed communications at the core of your role, choosing your key messages wisely

There’s simply not enough headspace to share everything. We find that leaders achieve higher, longer-term engagement when they galvanize their teams around a single, unitary common purpose. At any one time, the best leaders often rally, inspire, and mobilize their teams around one thing—often with a catchphrase that captures the essence and aspiration of the company and becomes emblematic of its culture.

Yan Hong Lee, managing director and head of group human resources at DBS Bank, shares the powers of a unifying theme: “[The management team] set a vision, purpose, mission, and strategy for our organization and communicated it clearly through an easy-to-understand mission of ‘making banking joyful.’ That simple mantra has helped our employees engage and actualize our goals very successfully.”

An organization’s one thing should be succinct and uniquely crafted to engage the organization and its core stakeholders. The best leaders avoid the common pitfall of creating this in a vacuum, which may result in a lack of holistic creative inspiration and buy-in. Instead, they listen first, sourcing ideas and insights from their most trusted advisors, including their top team, board, and customers, to weave together common threads and develop a message they can articulate with conviction.

Talk in your audience’s language

Barbara Coppola, global CEO of Decathlon, describes how her organization has been able to effectively manage disruption: “We move forward together with a common global vision while adjusting to local demands in real time. Every country operates as a separate entity but with shared ethos and values.”

We all want to be seen, so it’s worth going the extra distance to master organizational dialects. There are often good reasons for proprietary language, phrases, and acronyms, but for good or bad, they’re also badges of group identity. Using people’s established terms conjures warmth and validation for that specific community, creating an intimate connection, even if you’re a world apart. This isn’t so much a question of vocabulary as shared metaphors and myths. Each becomes a powerful, compact point of reference. But always remember, in-group language can also exclude if used carelessly. It is crucial that you are welcoming, authentic, and inclusive to all your audiences.

Converse with, not at, your audience

The best leaders systematically and deliberately communicate with, not at, their colleagues. They foster interactions that create a sense of renewal. In practice, this means frequently creating space to gather new thinking and understanding what is motivating and inhibiting people. Some of these opportunities will naturally be townhalls and other forums with teams—relaying messages in person. But direct conversation allows you to align, empower, and embolden teams to go further faster.

Lego’s Loren I. Shuster, chief people officer and head of corporate affairs, explains how Lego approaches this work: “We developed our ‘Leadership Playground’ to ensure everyone is heard, contributing, respected, and valued. We believe that to continuously thrive in the constantly changing world, everyone in an organization needs to act as a leader, not the executive leadership team alone.”

Make technology your assistant, not your boss

Undoubtedly, gen AI can help enrich your communications. But outsourcing them completely would be a surefire way to erode stakeholder trust. Leaders can harness the power of AI to serve as a “sparring partner” and help facilitate the communications process, but this material must be checked against context and overlaid with the human touch to be effective. This becomes even more critical as the stakes get higher; the more sensitive communications are, the more human intervention is needed. As our colleague, Tera Allas, says in a recent interview1: “If you think forward into a world where all communication is created by AI, it will be read by AI, too. Employees may not be reading their own email. There is a loss of meaning unless you put it back into a real-life context.”

Always bring it back to purpose

When defined, embedded, and activated effectively, purpose—both individual and institutional—can be an engine to accelerate all progress. It also enables long-term growth and engagement. Our research shows that employees whose sense of purpose connects with that of their companies are five times more likely than their peers to feel fulfilled at work.

Key questions for leaders to consider when articulating their purpose and narrative include:

  • How are you deeply engaging with and inspiring your audience at each interaction point? What do they feel inspired by? What are you teaching them?
  • What is the broader worldview in which your themes fit? How is performance and competition changing in your industry? What is the role of your business in society?
  • Are you continuously refreshing your purpose?
  • What deeper sources of meaning are you tapping?

Great CEOs recognize their unique role as the face, and voice, of the organization. In fact, connecting with stakeholders is one of the six mindsets that separate the best CEOs from the rest. The best CEOs not only own this mindset, they embrace it, placing communications at the core of their role.

Taking these five approaches enables leaders to make pivotal shifts to deeply empathize with and understand the mindsets of their employees. By doing so, they forge stronger connections and help spark their team’s imagination.

Organizational communication has the power to unlock the full potential of teams and usher in a new era of inclusive growth and engagement.

1 Anjli Raval, “Can AI make CEOs more relatable?,” Financial Times, March 21, 2024.