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Companies have seen employee engagement, culture and confidence soar when leaders communicate about Middle East conflict

by | Dec 4, 2023 | Public Relations

Business leaders have had a tough time lately getting employees engaged and motivated. The challenges are largely unprecedented—many workers today don’t even want to be in the office, after learning during the pandemic that they could be just as productive remotely, a mindset that didn’t exist prior to 2020. And young people just entering the workforce have come of age seeing Purpose issues like diversity and inclusion, social justice, the environment and more becoming urgent societal issues, and many of them just have different ideas about leader/employee dynamics and hierarchical respect. And all of those groups are empowered by the current talent crisis that lingers.

So how can leaders get a handle on this imbalance? New research from leadership and communications consultancy The Grossman Group suggests an approach that is working for many companies: openly communicating about sensitive global events that impact people’s lives, instead of being tone-deaf—even if that dialogue risks having political (and therefore polarizing) undertones. The new survey, conducted by The Harris Poll, reveals that confidence in senior leadership, alignment with company culture, and overall employee engagement increases 4 to 6 times for organizations that delivered effective communication on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The survey of U.S. employees found only a small number of employees received any communication regarding the conflict. Just 1 in 5 employees reported that their employer had shared an official internal statement, and only about 1 in 6 employees reported that their manager had directly communicated with them, according to the findings.

Why has this communication been effective?

Because the conflict affects the mindsets of so many: About half of employees surveyed (51 percent) said the issue in the Middle East had personally impacted them. And not only because they or their families were from the region—half of that group said they had no friends, colleagues, or other direct ties to the region at all.

“We often hear from CEOs and other top-level leaders that they don’t want to speak out on an issue such as the Middle East because it’s a political issue,” said David Grossman, founder and CEO of The Grossman Group, in a news release. “That has led many organizations to be tone-deaf to the needs of all employees and concern for their well-being at a time when they’re looking to their leaders to respond in some way.”

Grossman explains that the better screen for employers to use when deciding whether to communicate is understanding the likelihood that employees are affected beyond company operations.  

“In the case of this Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more than half of employees surveyed reported being affected. That’s almost ten times what you might expect from population numbers and five to six times what you might expect from those who said they were directly impacted,” Grossman said.

“By not communicating at all, leaders are sending a message as well. Listening and showing that you care is not political. Companies that communicated effectively prioritized employee well-being, which led to significantly higher trust in leadership, confidence and engagement, critical elements for overall business success.”

The overall impact of communication vs. no communication

The survey found that the more communication employees received, the better they felt about their employer and the company culture. The impact was the strongest when an internal statement was coupled with a manager reaching out to communicate directly with employees.

In fact, three outcomes that top leaders strive to foster among their teams—confidence in leadership, a strong culture, and engagement—increased four to six times when employers communicated about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and managers followed up with employees.

Highlights of the findings from those who strongly agree their company communicated effectively include:  

  • Employees who said their company did not make a statement reported the following:
    • 10 percent confidence in company leadership
    • 10 percent alignment with the company culture
    • 10 percent overall engagement
  • In contrast, when employers demonstrated best practices in issue communication—with both a company statement and manager outreach—key results increased four to six times for employees:
    • 59 percent had higher confidence in company leadership
    • 54 percent felt better aligned with the company culture
    • 45 percent said overall engagement increased
  • Some form of communication was also far better than no communication. When employees received either manager outreach or an internal company statement, the result was the following, respectively:
    • 32 and 30 percent had higher confidence in company leadership
    • 32 and 29 percent felt better aligned with the company culture 
    • 37 and 23 percent said their overall engagement increased

The power of manager outreach

The survey also found that when employees reported having a meeting with their manager, the results of those meetings among those who strongly agreed were very meaningful:

  • 43 percent said the conversation made them feel more engaged
  • 42 percent said their manager was empathetic
  • 39 percent felt their manager cared about them personally
  • 39 percent felt more aligned with the company culture

When given a list of key elements of best practice communications when issues arise, employees rated their organizations highest when they received communication from their manager. Simply issuing a company statement had a much smaller impact.

Additional key findings include:

  • When leadership issued solely an internal statement, on average, less than a third of employees gave high scores to leaders and strongly agreed that the communication was highly effective
  • With the addition of manager outreach, more than half of employees, on average, strongly agreed that the communication was highly effective
  • Managers do a particularly good job of reinforcing four elements:
    • Showing empathy
    • Clearly explaining the company position
    • Providing additional opportunities for dialogue
    • Following-up on recurrent updates
  • The more communication employees received, employee confidence in senior leadership, alignment with company culture, and overall employee engagement increased. The impact was greatest when an internal statement was coupled with a manager reaching out to communicate directly with employees. Some specific data supporting this point: 
    • Three outcomes top leaders strive to foster among their teams—confidence in leadership, a strong culture, and engagement—increased 4 to 6 times when employers communicated about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and managers followed up with employees
    • Employees who said their company did not make a statement reported just 10 percent confidence in company leadership, alignment with the company culture and overall engagement
    • In contrast, when employers demonstrated best practices in issue communication—with both a company statement and manager outreach—key results jumped 4 to 6 times for employees:
      • 59 percent had higher confidence in company leadership
      • 54 percent felt better aligned with the company culture
      • 45 percent said overall engagement increased
    • Some form of communication was also better than no communication. When employees received either manager outreach or an internal company statement, the result was the following, respectively:
      • 32 and 30 percent had higher confidence in company leadership
      • 32 and 29 percent felt better aligned with the company culture
      • 37 and 23 percent said their overall engagement increased

“When managers communicate, they make a big difference, yet few reached out,” Grossman said. “That’s a missed opportunity to communicate with employees at an exceedingly difficult time for them and the world.”

The key components of successful communication

The research also included a quantitative survey of 118 communication leaders to determine key components of best practice communications and a content analysis of 68 internal company statements.

Communicators identified 12 essential components and rated a sense of concern, empathy and authenticity as the most important components.

When the actual internal statements were assessed for those top components, about one-third of the statements didn’t include concern and authenticity, two of the top elements.

“Moreover, employee perception of their company’s internal statement suggests that most fell short on all the essential components—with none of the 12 scoring above 39 percent for those who strongly agree,” Grossman said. “Some elements, such as concern and reassurance, scored about 30 percent. This suggests that—even if those components appeared on paper—employees didn’t give credit for their inclusion.”

The research included three components:

  • A survey of 2,154 U.S. employees was conducted online over two waves in late October and early November 2023 and included a sample of both part-time and full-time employees. Data was weighted to the U.S. Census.
  • At the same time, 118 internal communication and senior communication professionals representing a broad spectrum of industries, sizes, and types of organizations were surveyed to determine the ideal elements of internal communication.
  • Finally, 68 internal statements were assessed in a content analysis to determine whether ideal elements were present

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter

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