How easy is it for you to answer these three questions (without asking Google)?
What is internal communication?
What is employee engagement?
Are they the same or different… and how?
I ran this exercise with the students I teach in the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, in my course Strategic Internal Communication. There was a very wide range of different answers… which isn’t really surprising given that half the time we seem to use the terms “internal communication” and “employee engagement” interchangeably. Some students felt the terms were the same thing. Others felt they were different… but couldn’t quite articulate what that difference was.
Here’s my hot take:
Internal communication ≠ employee engagement
They are different. We need to stop talking about them as if they’re one and the same.
Let’s look at some definitions.
Defining internal communication
There are a lot of definitions for internal communication out there. Here’s one by Jenni Field, from her book “Influential Internal Communication”:
“Internal communication includes everything that gets said and shared inside an organisation. As a function its role is to curate, enable and advise on best practice for organisations to communicate effectively, efficiently and in an engaging way.”
Jenni’s definition focuses both on internal communication as something that happens (“everything that gets said and shared”) and as a team function (“its role is to curate, enable and advise”). She emphasises that the role of the internal communication team is to ensure the organisation can communicate well.
Good start. Let’s look at another definition, this time by internal comms guru Rachel Miller:
“Internal communication is the way a company interacts with its people and they interact with it. The purpose of internal communication is to create shared understanding and meaning. Only when this happens can employees work together towards a company’s goals.”
Now I like Rachel’s definition because she explicitly calls out the purpose of internal communication... to “create a shared understanding and meaning”. Think about company core values, for example. You want employees to have the same understanding of what they mean and what the company expects from employee behaviour as a result.
Rachel also highlights what I see as a core part of internal communication: alignment. She says that creating a shared understanding will lead employees to “work together towards a company’s goals”. Rachel is spot on here – internal communication should help align employees around business goals, so they can work together to drive results. Internal communication should do more than just create an effective system of information sharing; it should help a company to deliver on its overall business goals.
Okay so we’re getting somewhere now with our definition of internal communication. Let’s consider one more from the literature, this time from Lesley Allman in her book “Better Internal Communication”:
“Internal communication is about ensuring that employees know what they need to do to deliver the company strategy.”
I love this. It’s short, it’s direct, it perfectly encapsulates the reason that internal communication exists: so that employees know what to do in order to deliver the company strategy. This gets to the crux of it for me.
Alright. So we’re clear on internal communication now, right? It is all about creating a shared understanding in an organisation, so that employees know what to do in order to help the business deliver on its goals.
What about employee engagement?
Now let’s have a go at defining employee engagement. Is it the same as internal communication?
If we go right back to where it all started in 2009 with the publication of the Engaging for Success report by MacLeod and Clarke, we can find the definition of employee engagement they created (which is still widely cited today):
“Employee engagement is a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success and are able at the same time to enhance their own sense of well-being”.
I asked ChatGPT for a modern definition of employee engagement and this is what it said:
“Employee engagement refers to the level of commitment, passion, and enthusiasm that employees have for their work and their organization. This includes their emotional attachment to the company, their willingness to go above and beyond their job responsibilities, and their overall job satisfaction.”
So pretty much straight away, we can see that this is a very different beast. This isn’t internal communication. This is “a workplace approach”. It’s about commitment, motivation, well-being, emotional attachment and job satisfaction. This is bigger than internal communication, and clearly cannot be delivered by one person or one team alone.
Ally Bunin, Global Communications Lead for Russell Reynolds Associates, summed it up nicely on LinkedIn last week when she said:
“Communicators should not carry the burden of employee engagement.”
But there’s definitely a relationship between employee engagement and internal communication, isn’t there? Internal communication plays a key role in employee voice and strategic narrative, for example, which are two of the key drivers of engagement in the Engaging for Success report.
So how does internal communication relate to employee engagement?
I like Jenni Field’s suggestion that:
“Employee engagement is an outcome of good internal communication.”
I like the concept of engagement as an outcome. It is a result, not a process. This definition reinforces that relationship between communication and engagement, whilst also very strongly differentiating them. So we can think of internal communication as a driver of engagement.
Nicholas Wardle and Mike Sharples, authors of “Monetising the Employee Experience” echo the idea that employee engagement is an outcome. They say:
“Employee engagement, morale and productivity are all outcomes of a good employee experience.”
In this definition, employee engagement is the outcome of a range of employee experiences – of which internal communication will play a part. But a good employee experience is comprised of a multitude of other aspects, such as development opportunities, compensation, benefits, promotions, flexibility… internal communication alone doesn’t cut it.
So on reflection, I’m going to go ahead and call it:
Internal communication ≠ employee engagement.
Internal communication is an essential ingredient of employee engagement, but you need the full recipe to get dinner on the table.
What should I do with all of this?
Here’s two practical takeaways for you:
Think about the definitions of internal communication outlined above. Does your internal communication create a shared sense of understanding among employees? Does it create alignment so that people can deliver on business goals? If not, there’s an opportunity for you to rethink your approach and identify ways to start moving in that direction.
If you have “and employee engagement” in your job title, then clarity and expectations will be key for you. Have you got a clear understanding of what employee engagement means to your manager, to your CEO, to your key stakeholders? Do they understand that employee engagement is broader than communication? Perhaps this blog will give you some useful talking points to get this conversation started with them.
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