Reconnecting the employee

With falling worker loyalty, management focus has now turned inward. Collaborative communications and a strong feedback culture are key to salvaging employee motivation.

Image: Thinkstock


Most new centuries seem to bring with them upheaval, resulting in rapid change and uncertainty in all aspects of life. The 21st century is proving to be no exception, but that is perhaps because it has also ushered in a new millennium and we currently find ourselves in the midst of a prolonged financial and economic crisis which has taken a particularly strong hold in the Eurozone. At the same time social media have impacted deeply on our world, having a marked effect on just about every level of society and the economy. This trend is still in its infancy but it is already challenging many of the paradigms on which some of our deepest beliefs are based.  

In the business world one of the most worrying consequences of the times we live in is the widespread decline in commitment and loyalty by employees, largely as a result of changing relationships between employer and employee.


A recent study by consultancy firm Synovate highlights the fact that more than 20 per cent of the workforce say they feel “disconnected” from their jobs, a figure to which we can add a further 15 per cent who describe themselves as “passive in relation to their professional activities”. In some sectors, such as banking, insurance or telecommunications, this applies to up to 50 per cent of employees. When organisations are heavily focused on services, a marked lack of motivation can have serious consequences. In a bid to improve levels of commitment among the workforce, organisations and their human resource departments have in recent years channelled considerable energy into identifying how to strengthen employee motivation. 

It is worth noting that this lack of commitment is to be found at all levels within organisations and does not only affect non-management employees. For example, a recent joint study carried out by IE Business School and Wharton, shows that 52 per cent of senior executives contacted by headhunters are keen to be considered as candidates to join other companies. 

This high figure is surprising given that these are people who are usually involved in projects requiring considerable time and energy, yet they are prepared to give up on them by putting themselves forward for positions with other companies without necessarily having much idea of what the job in question entails.

Very often we find that executives who complain about their team’s lack of loyalty are themselves actively looking for positions with other companies. In fact, the more senior the position, the more likely it is that an executive is seeking another job. 

This lack of loyalty on the part of senior executives can in large part be explained by today’s management styles. We have become accustomed to seeing companies sack people and replace them with others prepared to sell their services at a lower cost, so it is hardly surprising that 52 per cent of executives have leaving on their mind when they see the organisation treating people as disposable commodities.

Building bridges

This overall decline in employee loyalty is merely a reflection of the reciprocity that underlies almost all human relationships. Employees, at whatever level, will tend to treat their employers in the same way they feel they themselves are being treated. There is not much point in asking for something you yourself are not prepared to give.

This asymmetrical relationship means that employees face an uncertain future, which translates into feeling disconnected from their organisations, resulting in a lack of motivation. When there is a serious risk of the “emotional contract” between worker and employer being broken, the task of carrying out the rapid transformation that so many organisations need to undertake if they want to adapt to the 21st century is seriously compromised. 

Paradoxically, just at the moment when organisations need more talent and involvement from their workforces, we see the emergence of a new environment characterised by major decoupling on the part of the employee.  

If companies are going to adapt successfully to changing times, they will need to take a strategic approach aimed at rebuilding lost confidence. The philosophy that “people are a company’s most valuable asset” is taking root in organisations. Hence, keeping employees motivated so they will stay in their posts, even in times of low risk of voluntary rotation, has become a strategic priority. 

If organisations are to attract and retain the best and brightest professionals they need to improve their image by creating attractive and interesting projects and they also need to make sure that all this is highly visible both within and outside the organisation. The challenge now facing organisations is that of building dialogue-based bridges between the business, workers and society as a whole.

This approach begins with engaging the workforce and entails explaining things and involving people. We are in the midst of a process of social and organisational transformation that is going to be far from simple to carry out and in which the communication function must play a pivotal role. 

Internal spotlight

 During the economic boom years, our businesses and institutions focused their communication policy on the outside world, investing in advertising and public relations campaigns. But we now live in the age of engagement and our attention has turned to the workforce, the ambassadors of our brand. This means that the spotlight is now well and truly on internal communication. This key area is currently being reinvented to adapt to the style required by the new environment and it remains the best management tool to create an emotional link and group feeling to connect business and people. 

Motivational studies show that members of a group with a strong social identity commit much more to the kind of behaviour seen as desirable by the company. It has been shown that people are more prepared to contribute when they identify with the company they belong too, have a positive relationship with their environment and feel secure within the organisation. 

Another key factor revolutionising labour relations is the use of information technology. By creating collaborative work environments, the internet allows for far greater employee initiative and involvement in the business. Furthermore, this trend has seen the opinions of workers’ colleagues and peers take precedence over traditional sources of power and authority. Organisations have traditionally taken a top-down approach in their relationships with the workforce, in which communication was unidirectional. But they are now increasingly obliged to set up other mechanisms to enable the new, social media-based participative philosophy in which communication is a two-way street. New communication styles have to be honest and transparent and must hinge on collaboration.

One approach to generating more commitment from employees is gamification, which focuses on intrinsic motivation. It enables employees to do their work using games and other recreational activities, meaning that they work more because they want to rather than simply because they are being rewarded financially. More and more companies are employing this sophisticated tool as a way of influencing and changing the behaviour of staff in a way that is more subtle and efficient than mere economic recompense. 

Feedback focus

This new scenario, aside from increasing participation and improving contact among employees, also requires a feedback culture. Feedback provides the information needed to orient and incentivise certain types of desirable behaviour for the company, while at the same time facilitating development plans in line with the organisation’s strategic needs. 

One of the main reasons people say they leave their organisation is because they do not get on with their bosses. This is why knowing how to give and receive feedback is essential for effective leadership and why it should form part of a strategic process within the organisation. Problems start when communication and feedback is understood in terms of having good judgment, which means it is seen as an ability that someone has or does not have, rather than being considered a skill that must be developed. Many directors who are not properly trained find this process painful and avoid it, or they fail and bring the resulting negative effects down on themselves, their subordinates and the company in general. 

Truly useful feedback that generates commitment to the organisation and that improves internal communication is best provided in the following manner: 

  1. Be the right person for your job and not just because of your position in the management structure. This means there must be a link between trust and credibility, which in turn requires equal measures of emotional intelligence, diplomacy and patience. You must also have built a relationship in the past that can help foster productive dialogue. 
  2. Create the right environment for feedback to take place, one that is free from distractions and where privacy is guaranteed, without time constraints. 
  3. Be fully informed about the subject at hand and listen actively, avoiding value judgments, only asking questions that provide relevant details and a fuller understanding of the matter at hand. 
  4. Be open to dialogue, listen to new ideas and receive feedback on your communication, rather than making the meeting a monologue. 
  5. Develop and assess development alternatives for the other person, while aligning both sets of interests. Do not try to reach a decision quickly but allow all parties time to react. 
  6. Move toward a solution taking a positive approach and create a credible and viable plan of action. 
  7. Follow up on the meeting and be available for further feedback. 


Honest communication that respects employees and is open to new ideas provides clarity about mutual expectations and helps to transmit the organisation’s core values. 

Efficient leaders use feedback as a communication tool that allows them to clarify, correct and motivate their subordinates and other colleagues. It is not simply a process linked through the human resource department to a performance management system. Leaders must learn to manage communication techniques so as to be constructive and focused on the future and they should be able to listen and to ask questions with genuine interest. 

Feedback needs to be processed on a holistic basis, involving all levels of the organisation. It should also be strategically structured, beginning with the directors whose task it is to transmit the company’s culture. 

From a management perspective, few things provide better return on investment than creating a culture of feedback. Aside from providing rapid results, it has other benefits, including clear mutual expectations, trust and a sense of belonging, continuous improvement and honest recognition in line with expectations.

All the evidence shows that companies which invest in creating a feedback culture substantially improve internal communication processes, achieving commitment from employees by connecting people with the organisation.

Custodia Cabanas

An expert in leadership and workgroup management, Professor Custodia Cabanas has authored numerous research works on organisational behaviour, change management, interpersonal communication, the role of feedback and organisations in network form. In recent years she has extended her field of research toward internal communication and has set up and currently runs the first observatory in the field in a Spanish business school. Custodia has taught at IE Business School since 1989.