Buzzwords like alignment and engagement are tossed around a lot lately by execs and consultants — and often interchangeably. They’re important in manufacturing environments, where communication doesn’t always flow optimally between office and the line, between departments, or across geographies.

But while alignment and engagement are related, they’re really two quite different concepts. Each can (and often do) exist without the other, but real success only comes when they’re tackled together.

Think of alignment as “the head.” It’s the logical approach — laying out vision and the brand promise, communicating it well, making sure the team understands the goals, their roles in getting there, how all the pieces fit together and what success means to them and the organization.

Engagement is an appeal to “the heart.” It’s emotional — and it’s directly focused on how people feel about where things are going, whether they agree, how they react to what’s being asked of them and whether they care enough to give it their all.

Can alignment exist without engagement? Sure. People can understand without agreeing or fully buying in. They’ll do it because they’re told to or for some other external threat or reward. But you’re not likely to get their consistent best effort because they’re not bought in. They’ll do what they need to get by within the parameters set by others.

Conversely, engagement can also exist while being horribly misaligned. There are plenty of organizations out there with incredibly passionate and loyal employees. But if they’re not aligned around a core purpose, achievable goals and role clarity, they’re like a bunch of rowers in a boat each doing their own thing. They’re likely to go somewhere, but not efficiently or without a great deal of confusion.

Alignment: Setting the stage

If you truly want to change the course of your business, you need to turn your focus inward before you can effect change outside of your organization with your customer base.

That starts with aligning staff around your mission, goals, and the brand promises you’re making to customers. Your brand is built on everything your employees do. By listening and setting the stage, you’ll discover where to make the most effective changes if their words and actions do not align with the brand. Do this and you can start aligning your organization with its business strategy and build business growth.

Here are the three things you need to do to start aligning your brand internally:

1. Build a culture of clear communication and transparency — Set aside time to conduct a communications audit. At the very least, you need to review:

How and what gets shared with employees, and if the current dissemination is effective. Talking to your frontline staff will give you a solid idea of where you need to take communication.

How transparent are your organization’s communications efforts? If the current communications efforts focus on a “need-to know” basis, that demands change. With millennials taking over the workforce, there will be an increasing demand for transparency.

How well do all employees understand the culture and values of the organization? Be clear in sharing the company’s goals and vision. Help employees understand how they fit in.

2. Get to really know your staff — Building trust is going to take work and time. At the top of your list should be getting to know staff at all levels (not just your leadership team) and all locations. Whether you have a staff of 10 or 100,000, face-to-face communication should be a priority. Lockheed Martin CEO and president Marilyn Hewson spent her first year visiting customers, investors, and analysts— reaching out to 60,000 employees. Look at this endeavor as a company investment, not a waste of time.

The key to success in meeting staff is to remember that communication is a two-way street. Listening should be a priority. Take notes, look for patterns, and work with your leadership team and frontline employees to solve problems.

3. Get senior management on the same page — As a new leader, you may find that a communications misalignment doesn’t come from employees’ direct supervisors, but from senior management itself.

Make sure senior management is clear on the company strategy, “walking the talk,” and delivering the same message to staff.

Those are a few easy steps to start getting out the message for employee understanding. From there, it’s time to go about the much harder work of getting their full buy-in.

(Not sure how aligned your company is? Take Imaginasium’s alignment test).

Making employee engagement matter

Winning hearts and making inroads on employee engagement requires unwavering support from leadership and a shift in thinking across the organization. There are steps you can take as a leader to start better engaging your employees:

1. Tap into the knowledge and talent pool — Organizations with highly engaged employees tap into the full range of people’s knowledge and talents. How can this benefit the older employee who was considered “mentally retired?”

2. Set clear expectations — Communication skills are key in letting employees know what is expected. But strong leaders let individuals decide how they will meet those expectations.

3. Create a common purpose — Define the kind of emotional experience you are trying to create for your customers and use that with employees to give their work meaning.

4. Be customer-centric — This is a no-brainer for front line employees, but many employees are not customer facing. Showing behind-the-scenes workers how they support your customers gives them the purpose they are looking for.

5. Use customers to bring the company vision to life — Seek out stories on how your organization or product has made your customers’ lives better. For example, an orthopedic prosthetic company may tell the story of a Desert Storm veteran who can now walk because of their product.

6. Listen to your employees — Your employees know what’s not working. No organization, no matter how successful, is immune. A leader needs to work with their employees to remove barriers and make their job serving your customers easier. So get in the trenches and truly listen.

7. Let frontline employees be problem solvers — Negative customer experiences often come when the frontline employee isn’t given the freedom to solve the problem. The epitome of customer service, The Ritz-Carlton, gives every employee the discretion to use up to $2,000 per guest to solve a customer complaint—without checking in with their supervisor.

8. Allow for mistakes — Allowing employees to stretch and approach projects in different ways will lead to innovation and personal growth. Thomas Edison stated, “I haven’t failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

9. Share the good news, and the bad — By raising difficult issues themselves and encouraging ensuing conversation, leaders can show that hard conversations are not taboo.

Employee engagement is a lot of constant, focused, and sometimes difficult work. If it starts feeling complicated, step back and ask yourself how you’d want to be treated. And then watch your business fly.

Importance of change management

Any changes in your organization can impact alignment and engagement. It can be positive change, such as becoming more agile, a company expansion, or new product rollouts. Or maybe it’s a negative change, such as losing market share, layoffs, or plant closures.

If not dealt with correctly, you start seeing the effects quickly. Customers lodge more complaints, decrease purchases, or move their business to the competition. Employees attitudes tank. They become disengaged. They may even quit.

Studies consistently show that about 70 percent of all change programs fail. McKinsey notes that this failure is based on human behavior — employee resistance and management behaviors. And these failures come at a high cost. Accenture reports that 85 percent of companies with failed initiatives had major unresolved, underlying issues before even attempting their change initiatives.

Results of a dual approach

Approached together, alignment and engagement ensure understanding while also addressing teams’ true needs to they can effectively do their jobs and feel good about their contribution.

And beyond feelings, the “head and heart” approach impacts profitability, customer loyalty, share of wallet, productivity, staff retention, and more.

Gallup’s Q12 employee engagement survey found that companies with highly engaged staff have:

            • 12% increase in customer loyalty/engagement
            • 16% increase in profitability
            • 18% increase in productivity

In fact, companies that focused on both high employee engagement and high customer engagement had a 240 percent boost over the competition. (See more data on alignment and engagement).

It’s a plain and simple truth: Actively engaged and aligned employees drive the organization further, faster…and directly translate into stronger customer relationships.

And that determines your chances of long-term success.