Most communications folk have wrestled at some point in their careers with the distinction between internal communications and employee engagement.  Some see the disciplines having shared DNA, while others believe that every so often, one needs to sit down for a rest while the other takes over the reins.

The debate is important for a number of reasons, none less so than the tension it has been creating between communications and human resource departments over ownership since the Pope first tried on an altar boy’s surplice. These tensions typically intensify when the economy gets shy and job cuts and austerity-class business travel take precedence over new hiring and employee morale withdraws to a dark place.  This is a real shame because it’s the wrong debate.

The one thing that is beyond argument these days is that better-engaged workforces reward their employers by out-performing less engaged competitors across a range of measures, from productivity and improving customer satisfaction to hard-edged bottom line returns.  It’s also a reasonable assumption that a business that has fostered a culture of meaningful engagement with its employees will have smuggled that philosophy in to the way it manages customers and other external stakeholders.

Furthermore, genuinely engaged employees are more willing, when tough times come calling, to accept and embrace difficult but necessary business decisions that call for organisational and structural change, site closures or a reduction in budgets and benefits.  Wouldn’t we all prefer to weather the storms of recession surrounded by colleagues who are up for the battle rather than those who prefer to spend time debating the need for a fight?

But what is an engaged employee, exactly?  In my book, it’s someone who takes more than a passing interest in the health and wellbeing of their colleagues and the company they have chosen to work for. They invest time to understand the external headwinds and opportunities, the changing needs of customers and the economic and market conditions that impact the world they inhabit.

Engaged employees recognise that, ultimately, their personal long-term interests align with those of a good employer and view happy customers a valuable commodity.  They accept the need to make things ever better and more efficient. They see the need to do the right thing, even when it costs them personally in the short term.  They bring passion, commitment and a desire to win, a pride in the employer they’ve chosen and a will to succeed alongside their ID cards and lunchboxes to work.

Logic would tip its hat in acknowledging the important role that a well-managed flow of strong, honest and consistent messages plays in improving and reinforcing employee engagement.  It would also have no quarrel with the view that HR policies and practices, such as pay and rations and learning and personal development plans, have an impact too.  But logic would also have to accept that both, while important, in themselves do not constitute employee engagement.

Engagement cannot exist without trust, and trust only truly exists between people.  In large organisations, employees look to their local line managers, the senior people they know best and have most in common with, for explanation, context and direction.

Line manages are the people employees are most likely to have a common experience with, have had a drink or social interaction with and, as a result, is where the engagement battle is ultimately won or lost.  This is not to say that the HR and communications teams don’t have a role to play but it’s as part of the production crew, not on the stage.

Internal communications can be an overly passive pursuit, dominated by a flow of anonymous electronic messages from headquarters created and issued by the communications department, usually at the request of a senior executive or divisional head.

A lot of internal communications bears an uncanny resemblance to corporate hoopla or vanity publishing.  Too much of what passes for corporate comms lacks relevance to employees because it treats them as a communal body with homogenous interests, rather than the regionally and demographically diverse collection of experiences, expectations and skills that make up the group. The outcome can be non-engaging, corporate noise.   Similarly, the occasional state visit by a CEO or other executive to a satellite site operation often feels to staff like it has more to do with the senior figure’s profile than their education of the business from those at the coal face.

Local line managers, when they have the confidence, the commitment and the mandate to engage their teams positively, can bypass this corporate carousel.  In fact, it’s part of the day job of a good leader but not an inherent skill for every manager.

HR teams are well placed to instil this confidence by ensuring employee engagement is on the corporate agenda and that the ability to engage employees is valued and supported in training budgets.  The comms teams, meanwhile, can get on with supplying a steady flow of relevant collateral ammunition and guidance, which local managers can localise and add relevance and context to.

But engagement, like communication, is a two-way thing.  Listening is more important than talking – nothing kills engagement faster than a manager enamoured with the sound of their own voice and who fails to hear about the opportunities that only local teams can see and understand.

Honestly and transparency are also critical.  It still amazes me how many senior managers believe they can gain better and more timely business insight from month old data on a spread sheet than the people working on the shop floor, in sales or in the billing department with their real time and real world exposure.

Telling the employees that everything’s going to plan when its obvious to them that orders have dried up, or demanding cost efficiencies when sales are patently strong, will cost the attention of anyone who knows better.  Management credibility also takes a haircut. No one will take the time to engage with a non-credible manager.

For me, employee engagement is neither an internal communications nor a human resource department accountability, despite the tug-o-war it often creates between the two.  Rather, it’s a responsibility that only line managers can truly discharge systematically with their teams when supported fully by their communications and HR teams, and championed by the most senior executives in the business.

At the time of writing, the economy is as low, and corporate confidence as fragile, as at any time in my fading memory.  Now might be a really good time for any internal comms and HR folk who continue to wrestle control of engagement to put down their weapons and join forces. Doing so will help support the business in making the best of the current outlook and prepare the ground for sunnier days.