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Internal Communication and Employee Engagement

Internal Communication and Employee Engagement

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Published by Kevin Ruck
This paper takes a broad look at internal communication and employee engagement theory and suggest how they can be better integrated.
This paper takes a broad look at internal communication and employee engagement theory and suggest how they can be better integrated.

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Published by: Kevin Ruck on Jan 06, 2011
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Internal communication andorganisational employeeengagement: an integratedapproachKevin Ruck
Lancashire Business School,University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UKkevin.ruck@pracademy.co.uk
1Copyright Kevin Ruck
Communication inside organisations is recognised as a critical factor in organisationalperformance. Salem (2008) outlines seven communication reasons why organisations fail tochange that include insufficient communication, distrust, poor interpersonal communicationskills, and conflict avoidance. Daly, Teague and Kitchen (2003, p. 153) claim that “researchindicates that up to 70 per cent of change programmes fail and poor internal communicationis seen as the principal reason for such failure”. However, despite the importance of internalcommunication, it is said to be an under-researched field. Academics such as Grunig (1992,p. 557) and Argenti (1996, cited in Welch and Jackson, 2007) point to the lack of theoreticalunderstanding and research on internal communication. Similarly, Smidts
et al 
(2001, citedin Welch and Jackson, 2007) highlight that internal communication is a rather “neglected”discipline. Waymer and Ni (2009, p. 11) state that “Employee relations is an important areaof public relations. Yet it often goes understudied and undervalued because public relationsdoes not have primary responsibility for internal communication”. At the same time,employee engagement is also recognised as a critical factor in organisational performance.MacLeod and Clarke, (2009, p. 34) claim that employee engagement generates better financial performance in the private sector and better outcomes in the public sector.According to Gallup (2006), in addition to profitability, other benefits of employeeengagement include higher customer advocacy and higher productivity. The gap betweenpotential and actual benefit is however, significant. A study for CIPD (Truss
et al,
2006, p. xi)found that only 35 per cent of UK employees were actively engaged with their work.This paper examines internal communication from two different traditions of theory; humancommunication theory and public relations theory. It then examines employee engagementfrom psychological (work) theory and practitioner based research. Distinctions are drawnbetween consultancy and practitioner research (which has tended to dominate the fields) andacademic research. It argues that internal communication is the golden thread that holds thepotential for significant increases in levels of employee engagement. The key to unlockingthis potential is to take a stakeholder approach to internal communication, one that embracesa concept of 
informed employee voice.
This emphasises a focus on employees and their communication needs rather than a top-down management perspective that typifies muchpractice. Finally, it synthesises theory into a new integrated approach to internalcommunication and employee engagement that has practical implications for measurementand management.
2Copyright Kevin Ruck
Broad theories of internal communication
Before looking specifically at internal communication theory, it is informative to explore it firstfrom a broad perspective. In doing so, it is acknowledged that “Scholars have made manyattempts to define communication, but establishing a single definition has proved impossibleand may not be very fruitful” (Littlejohn and Foss, 2008, p. 3). This paper adopts Littlejohnand Foss’ (2008, pp. 24-25) requirements of theory that incorporate four aspects;philosophical assumptions, concepts, explanations and principles. Subsequent internalcommunication and employee engagement theories are reviewed with these aspects in mindwith an emphasis on the fourth aspect, principles (a principle “is a guideline that enables youto interpret an event, make judgments about what is happening, and then decide how to actin the situation”, (Littlejohn and Foss, 2008, p. 19)). As Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson(2008, pp. 5-8) observe, management research is distinctive from other social scientificresearch and “there is often an expectation that research will lead directly to action”.In a seminal text on communication, Littlejohn and Foss (2008) outline seven traditions of human communication; semiotic, phenomenological, cybernetic, sociopsychological,sociocultural, critical and rhetorical. This is not a complete list and is based on Craig’s (1999)metamodel of communication theory. Each tradition has relevance for internalcommunication. Littlejohn and Foss (2008, p. 55) highlight the sociopsychological,cybernetic, sociocultural and critical as being the contributory traditions for organisations.These four traditions are similar to Bryant and Heath’s (2000, pp. 305-8) identification of four paradigms; (a) structural functionalism, (b) psychological, (c) interpretivism, and (d) systemsinteraction which are reviewed briefly below.
Structural functionalism
prioritises information flow and the accuracy and clarity of messages – themes that are highlighted again later on in this paper. It also raises issues of communication underload and overload that impact commitment (Heath and Bryant, 2000, p.312). However, the approach is focused on identifiable flows, when a lot of information flowsacross organisations in informal ways. It is based on rationality when people are oftenirrational and ambiguity in communication is to be expected. Furthermore, it does notaddress issues of tacit knowledge or silo team management that often mitigate againstinformation flow.
Structural functionalism
can be linked to
systems interaction
which is basedon the theory of organisations as systems and sub-systems that are hierarchically arranged.In essence, this is an input-output paradigm that informs stakeholder theory which is alsoreviewed in more detail later. One drawback of systems thinking is that it overemphasisesformal processes within organisations, when, as Wheatley (2006, p. 144) suggests that, “Lifeuses networks; we still rely on boxes. But even as we draw our boxes, people are ignoring
3Copyright Kevin Ruck

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