Baby Steps

I’m not a runner, but lately I’ve been pretending to be one in preparation for a local event, the Corporate 4-Miler. I’ve reached the ability to run two miles without stopping, which doesn’t sound like a lot for people who run in 10ks and marathons, but which is a major accomplishment for me.

As one of my Facebook friends reminded me, we all cross the same finish line. I’m not looking to set any records. I’m looking for the free beer at the end.

Earlier this year, my boss asked me to put some thought around manager/leader communication in my company. We want managers/leaders to be better informed so they, in turn, can communicate more effectively with the people they lead. I excitedly mapped out a plan for reaching the desired end state in which managers/leaders are well trained as communicators, where they freely share information with their people and engage them in meaningful dialogue.

My boss reminded me that what she was really looking for was some incremental steps toward that goal that we could take immediately. Ahh. That makes the task a lot less daunting.

To help guide my thinking in manager/leader communications, I bought a book called The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. It’s written by a Harvard Business School professor and her husband, a developmental psychologist. They asked hundreds of employees in several organizations to keep diaries about what motivated them at work. One big finding was that while managers and leaders often believe recognition, incentives, clear goals and the like are the greatest motivating factors for employees, the thing that really gets people going is seeing incremental progress toward goals. People want to see the baby steps that get them where they want to be.

Of course, this suggests a significant communication role for managers/leaders. People want to understand the goals before them, they want to know where they fit in, and they want regular feedback on how they’re doing. They want this collaboration and communication with their bosses to be consistent and ongoing. Seeing incremental progress motivates people to be more engaged, productive and creative in their work.

Thunderstorms every day this week have kept me from being able to run outside. I had worked my way up to completing two miles, but not being able to see any progress this week has demotivated me. Kind of like a lack of communication from a boss. I’ll get back out there and pick up where I left off, but it’s going to be tough.


Yahoo!’s Seinfeld Moment

One of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes is “The Apology,” in which AA-inspired Jason “Stanky” Hanky apologizes to people he has wronged. Everyone, that is, except for George Costanza, who tries to pry an apology out of Jason for what he considers an insult concerning the size of his head.

Jason offers a sarcastic apology, then later apologizes for it — or does he, really?


I was reminded of this half-apology when I read a memo to employees from Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson. The company revealed last week that Thompson lied on his résumé, stating that he had received a computer science degree from Stonehill College when in fact his degree is in accounting.

Yahoo! defended Thompson, saying that “This in no way alters that fact that Mr. Thompson is a highly qualified executive with a successful track record leading large consumer technology companies.” Well, yes it does. The leader of one of the world’s leading technology companies shouldn’t lie. And if he lies about his college degree, what else would he lie about?

As Yahoo! scrambled to figure out how to manage the fallout from this embarrassment, Thompson wrote a memo to employees. He does a few things right — talking about how the board is dealing with the issue and trying to refocus employees on the considerable work ahead of them — but then there is this:

I want you to know how deeply I regret how this issue has affected the company and all of you. We have all been working very hard to move the company forward, and this has had the opposite effect. For that, I take full responsibility, and I want to apologize to you.

Thompson has made one of the most common mistakes CEOs, politicians and other scoundrels make when they are caught doing something wrong and try to apologize for it. He apologizes for the fact that his lying has affected the company and its employees, but he doesn’t really apologize for lying.

I wouldn’t blame Yahoo! employees if they felt a bit like George Costanza. They deserve an apology — the right kind of apology for the real offense, not regret for the fallout it has caused.


Great News! CEOs Still Don’t Like Us Very Much

Public relations and communications professionals might be gaining some stature in the eyes of their CEOs, according to the latest Generally Accepted Practices report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The biennial survey included 620 PR and communication professionals in private and public companies, government organizations and agencies.

About 60 percent of the respondents said they’re invited to attend executive meetings while nearly 70 percent said their top executives take their recommendations seriously. Fifty-six percent said their CEOs believe PR and communications contribute to their company’s financial success.

That’s good news because PR and communication functions are like the runts of the litter, always having to fight to get fed and constantly vying for our executives’ attention and appreciation. The fact that more than half report their CEOs feel they contribute to the bottom line is encouraging indeed.

However, it begs some questions: Why do the other half of the CEOs keep communicators around? If they don’t believe PR and communication add any value, why do they keep funding the roles? What about the 40 percent who never get invited to executive meetings and the 30 percent whose recommendations are waved off as frivilous? No CEO in his or her right mind would hang on to a corporate function they don’t believe in or value.

I believe the truth is they do believe in PR and communication. They do value us. They’ll just never admit it.

If we’re doing our jobs right, CEOs will never be in love with those of us in PR and communication. That’s because we’re challenging conventional wisdom in our organizations. We’re pushing our executives to change the nature of their conversations as well as their tone. We’re advocating for the audiences who, more than ever, see through corporate crap and demand that CEOs be real and authentic no matter what they’re talking about. If we’re serious about providing value, we’re a burr in our CEOs’ sides most of the time — but all for the sake of helping our organizations do and say the right things. It’s all about helping our organizations — and leaders — succeed.

CEOs don’t like us very much and probably never will. But they know they need us.


How Communicators Can Aid Employee Retention

In another sign the U.S. economy is improving, a recent survey by one of the nation’s largest recruiters found that 28 percent of employers’ job openings in January were the result of people quitting their jobs, up from 21 percent last July. The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this trend, saying that the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs has steadily increased since the low point of December 2009, in the depths of the recession.

This is good news for workers because it indicates they are more confident they can find a job. It’s bad news for employers because it’s expensive to lose talent and recruit replacements. It’s also bad news for employers because it indicates a shift of power back into the hands of employees. It’s slowly becoming a job-seeker’s market once again, so hiring companies might soon find themselves making more concessions in negotiations with candidates.

There’s something else going on here, though. When unemployment is high and jobs are hard to come by, companies sometimes treat employees like a necessary evil, paring back benefits and perks, imposing more restrictive policies, pulling back on communication activities and becoming less forthcoming with information than they were when times were good. Managers get grumpy because they’re often caught in the middle of this austere environment, and as we know, people quit their bosses more than they quit their companies.

I wrote about this coming shift nearly two years ago and how employee communication could play a role in helping to stave off the exodus. Now it’s upon us and I have some additional thoughts about the role communicators could play in helping our organizations retain talented employees who might be looking for greener pastures.

  • Help to create or maintain a culture of open communication. Hopefully communicators have done this throughout the recession as business leaders pulled back on communicating — because there wasn’t much “good news” to communicate. The business environment shouldn’t dictate what an organization’s communication culture is like.
  • Help position managers and supervisors as trusted sources of information. Middle managers are the linchpins of most organizations and they should be armed with enough information, resources and training to maintain the trust relationship with employees — in good times as well as bad.
  • Encourage business leaders to be out front and up front. This past recession, perhaps more than any other, greatly eroded employees’ trust and confidence in senior management. One way to rebuild that trust and confidence is for leaders to be seen and heard. Employees’ decisions to leave organizations are sometimes based on false assumptions about the condition of the organization or because employees don’t believe its leaders have a plan for success. Now is the time for leaders communicate openly and clearly about how the organization is emerging from the recession and what it plans to do in the next 3-5 years.
  • Communicate about employees’ total compensation package. Without being too obvious about it, find a good time to remind employees of what the company offers them beyond base salary or hourly wages. Before open-enrollment time, tell employees about some of the “hidden benefits” they might not know about. Find ways to remind employees why it’s good to work for the organization (if, indeed, it is — don’t put a turkey in a tuxedo and pass it off as high class).

Hopefully, your organization isn’t playing “catch up” now that better times appear to be on the horizon. Making “good will deposits” in the bad times is the best way to ensure your best employees stick around when it’s easier to leave.


Faith Gives Hope for Communicating with Passion

This weekend I said goodbye to one of my two best friends. I shared some personal thoughts about Faith Eury with my Facebook friends — who she was, how we became friends, why I loved her and what she meant to me. As I’ve thought about her over the last few days, I realize there’s something I can say about her life that is relevant to communicators, so I want to share it here.

Faith was a communicator herself. That’s how we became friends — she worked for a client I served as a consultant 10 years ago. A friendship blossomed, then deepened because of some shared experiences including a history of anxiety attacks. I had been through them before and tried to offer encouragement that she could overcome them. Social anxiety is more common than many people know and attacks can be debilitating.

Faith was an effective communicator because she could cut through extraneous information and get to the essence of a message. She was that way as a person, too. There was no fluff with her. She cut to the chase.

On a spring morning nearly three years ago, I took Faith to the hospital because her primary care doctor told her she needed to go right away and she shouldn’t drive herself. I stayed with her through a long day of examinations and tests that resulted in a diagnosis nobody wants to hear. She had Hodgkin’s disease, a blood cancer that is survivable with chemotherapy. She endured the brutal treatments with courage and grace.

But she did more than just endure. While still in treatment, Faith organized a team to walk in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night event in Richmond, Va. Not only did she organize the “Faith’s Hope” team, but it raised the most money of any team in the walk. Over the next two years Faith would lead the team to raise more than $16,000 for blood cancer research. In addition, she helped coordinate events for the LLS and spoke to school groups and others about the importance of research to the fight against cancer. The LLS in Virginia honored her as its Volunteer of the Year in 2010.

All this from a woman who suffered from social anxiety.

Faith and her pal Henry

I’ve thought a lot about how Faith was able to pull it off. Where did she find the courage to overcome her fears and speak publicly about her Hodgkin’s disease? Why didn’t the prospect of getting up in front of total strangers paralyze her? Why did a woman who was intensely private open up her life to not only friends but people she did not know?

It’s because Faith was passionate about her topic. She lived it. She experienced it deeply. It was part of her. When she spoke or wrote about it, she was communicating from the deepest part of her soul.

We communicators can learn something from that. Yes, even in a business context, it’s possible to communicate with as much passion. In business we rarely communicate about life-and-death issues like cancer. But as we write speeches for executives, we can try to pull the passion out of them. As we interview people for a feature story on the company intranet, we can ask them questions that get at why they care about the subject, using real words instead of corporate-speak. We’re working with people, after all, who hopefully live life in a real way and experience things deeply. Sometimes I think we just don’t work hard enough to get to the essence of the message.

If a woman like Faith can cast aside her fear and talk honestly about something she cared about that affected her, why can’t we get our clients to cast aside theirs and talk honestly about things that affect them and their audiences?

Answering the Why

While consulting with a Fortune 500 consumer products company, my client and colleagues and I conducted internal and external research as the basis for an internal communication plan. As we talked with employees in focus groups, one theme kept reappearing. Employees didn’t just want to know where the company was headed and what decisions management was making. They also wanted to know why.

Answering the why is probably one of the most overlooked — and one of the most powerful — aspects of employee communication.

We might do a great job of communicating strategic messages on behalf of business leaders. These might include new products the company is launching or new markets it’s entering, investments the company is making and policies that are changing.

We might do an even better job of telling compelling stories about a team’s innovative approach to solving a problem, an employee’s passion for her job or the unique culture at one of the company’s plants.

These might make for interesting content. Employees might enjoy reading these stories on the intranet or hearing the CEO talk about them in town hall meetings. Leaders might believe they’re doing their part to create an environment of open, transparent communication. And they might be right.

But ask employees what’s missing from the information they receive about the business and often they’ll say they want to know the reasons behind company strategy, leaders’ decisions and changes in company policy and procedures.

Why is the why so important? Because it strengthens employee engagement. Sharing lots of information about the business is a good start toward engaging employees, but you can knock the ball out of the park when you start to talk about why. It helps employees put the pieces of the puzzle together and to make sense of the organization’s complexities. It helps them establish “line of sight” between what they do and what the business is trying to do. It helps them understand the reasons for business decisions, even if they don’t like those reasons.

Why is the company acquiring this seemingly unrelated business? Because it provides an entry point into an adjacent market.

Why does the company have such a stringent social media policy? Because it has a strategy when it comes to engaging with consumers and it wants to speak with one voice.

Why is the company laying off 100 people at this plant? Because bringing its cost structure in line with competitors is in the company’s long-term best interest.

Many business leaders forget that employees are investors, too. Even if they don’t invest their money in company stock, they do invest their time, energy and skills in the enterprise. Business leaders would never communicate a major business decision to investors without explaining why they made that decision — at least, if they want investors to continue investing. The same is true of employees. If you want them to continue investing their discretionary effort in your company, answering the why is essential.

Leadership in Difficult Times

The Great Recession and its lingering effects are causing workers around the world to feel down in the dumps, according to a recent survey by the consulting firm rogenSi.

That bit of news probably comes as no surprise. There hasn’t been a lot of reason in the last three years — the length of time the firm has been surveying workers — for employees to feel optimistic.

Buried in the report, however, is a nugget of information in which communicators should be interested:

There are a number of reasons for this general

feeling of apathy across the global workforce.

Prominent amongst them is the fact — borne out

by the Index – that leaders are still failing to deliver

one of the critical elements of leadership: effective

and clear communication. [Survey] respondents from

all corners of the globe have clearly stated this year

that while they have a renewed passion for their

roles and work, and very firmly believe they have

the skillsets and aptitude to effectively do their jobs,

they are lacking a clear idea and knowledge of their

organisation’s vision for the future.

The report cites “an acute lack of leadership communication” as one of the most dramatic findings of the 2011 survey.

One of the best practices of employee communication is that in times of uncertainty and turmoil, leaders step up their communication. Whether the churn comes from within the organization or is caused by external forces, employees want to hear from their leaders. They want to hear their leaders acknowledge the difficulties and the toll it takes on employee engagement and morale. They want to know their leaders have a plan for dealing with the problems and that there is still a vision to work toward. They want the opportunity to express their concerns and to ask questions. They want to know that leaders hear them.

Increasing communication in difficult times is not easy for leaders to do, but it is part of being a leader.

Oh, Grow Up

For years I’ve noticed that business leaders in many companies think of employees as children who need tight supervision and who can’t be trusted to make good decisions or to handle information appropriately.

Apparently, that attitude has gone mainstream. In his Harvard Business Review blog, MIT research fellow Michael Schrage expresses his astonishment that high-profile business and political leaders recently have come right out and said their employees or colleagues are no better than children needing “adult supervision.” In fact, “adult supervision” seems to be a new buzzword. Great, we needed another buzzword in the business world.

Schrage hits the nail on the head as he explains why using this phrase is a bad idea: “Condescension rarely builds loyalty or trust. Describing — even dismissing — adversaries and colleagues as ‘childish’ and ‘immature’ seems a surefire way to inspire hostility and resentment. You’d think serious leaders and healthy organizations would avoid insultingly corrosive characterizations.”

You’d think, but you’d be wrong.

It’s partly a reflection of this new age of vitriolic communication in which people feel free to say the first thing that comes to mind, disregarding that internal filter of maturity and sophistication that should set us apart from Neanderthals. For an example, look no farther than the U.S. Congress or cable TV talk shows.

But it’s a manifestation of a problem that has been around for many years. There’s a pervasive feeling among business leaders — and among politicians, too, but I don’t work in politics, thank God — that employees are unable to think for themselves, to demonstrate good judgment, to handle sensitive information (especially when it’s bad news), to self-monitor how they use their time, to act responsibly on behalf of themselves and their company, or to do pretty much anything that the guys in the executive suite can do.

To be fair, there is a minority of workers who can’t do any of those things. They are bad eggs and you’ll find a few anywhere you have a large assembly of people.

But in my 23 years of experience working in employee communications for dozens of organizations, I’ve mostly run across employees who do act like adults, who want to do well in their jobs and want their companies to succeed, and who just wish their companies’ leaders would treat them like adults.

The “adult supervision” mindset leads to a host of problems: lack of trust between employees and managers, lack of confidence in business leaders, lack of motivation to take risks or to be innovative, decreased levels of employee engagement, wasting time in CYA mode, wasting time gossiping and complaining, and many others.

A great current example of how the problem plays out is the fact that half of the companies out there still don’t allow employees to access social media from work. This is in spite of the fact that increasing numbers of prospective employees expect their employers to use the technology people use in their personal lives. Social media has tremendous potential to help employees share knowledge and information, to collaborate and to save time finding answers to their work-related problems. Yet many business leaders are afraid their employees will waste company time by using social media in inappropriate ways.

I’ve been working since before email was widely used in business. Let me tell you something: the small percentage of slacker employees will find ways to waste time whether or not social media are allowed at work. It’s a management problem, not an employee problem.

Employees will act like adults when managers and business leaders start treating them like adults. Business leaders can start by embracing a more open communication culture.


Five Ways to Rebuild Lost Trust

I recently decried the results of a survey that indicates U.S. workers’ trust in management continues to erode, even as the nation’s economy struggles to regain its footing. If ever there was a time when business leaders need the confidence and engagement of employees, it’s now.

According to the survey, only one in 10 employees trust management to make the right decisions in difficult times. In a telling bit of data, 7 percent believe their leaders’ actions match their words.

Such an alarming lack of trust has serious consequences for business. A workforce that doesn’t trust its management is one that is not very likely to invest itself in the difficult tasks ahead. Distrustful employees are more likely to spend their time griping about how their jobs suck, how the company is headed for disaster and how senior management is a bunch of buffoons. All of this chips away at productivity, morale and reputation. It drains the life right out of the organization.

I seriously doubt that’s what American business leaders want. Yet they are so consumed with digging out of the recession, trying to light a fire under the weak recovery, propping up the financials so that investors don’t lose their confidence, that they fail to recognize what’s happening inside their companies. And they fail to recognize that they have a powerful tool available to help regain the trust they’ve lost among employees: communication.

I don’t believe communication is the cure-all for any business problem, including the erosion of trust. But I do believe that, combined with other activities, communication can help greatly. However, communication is often the first thing business leaders sacrifice during tough times and the last thing they think about as a resource for recovery.

Here are five things business leaders can do to begin to rebuild employees’ trust:

  • Be visible. People don’t trust people that they never see and with whom they never interact. Roger D’Aprix, an internal communications icon, once said that trust isn’t built by sending a memo. Face-to-face interaction is necessary for trust to be established. That’s because people assess others by a host of non-verbal signals — body language, tone of voice, inflections, facial expressions.
  • Spend quality time with people. When I worked in employee communications at one of AT&T’s manufacturing facilities in the 1990s, the president of our business unit once told me that communication was his most important job as a leader. When he visited our plant, he always took an hour to walk out onto the factory floor and talk with people. He communicated business messages and he asked questions and he listened. That one hour went a long way toward establishing trust with employees. Business leaders must build time into their schedules, no matter how brief, to communicate.
  • Demonstrate trustworthiness. As the survey points out, workers today don’t believe management’s words match their actions. Business leaders who find themselves in this predicament must take concrete steps to demonstrate that their “say” matches their “do.” Honor commitments. Keep appointments. It will take time, but employees will begin to have faith that their leader’s word is trustworthy.
  • Trust others. Showing others that you trust them goes a long way toward building their trust in you. Business leaders can demonstrate they trust employees by sharing information, delegating responsibility and generally treating employees like adults. Workers who feel their management doesn’t even trust them with work-related information are not very likely to reciprocate.
  • Open up. Just as in personal relationships, business leaders must take some risks by opening up, being honest and showing some vulnerability in order to gain employees’ trust. This means sometimes sharing sensitive information, engaging in frank discussions and admitting mistakes.

Trust takes time to build, a moment to destroy and even more time to rebuild. People who feel their trust has been betrayed or at least not honored will try to protect themselves from a similar disappointment by not easily trusting again. Unfortunately, this is where many business leaders find themselves today. It’s not a hopeless place, but escaping it requires time, intention, and a sincere effort.

No Communication? No Trust

With an economy that’s taking its sweet time recovering from the worst recession since World War II and global competition fiercer than ever, it would be nice if American workers had confidence in their companies’ management to lead them through the tough times.

Don’t hold your breath. A new poll by Maritz Research delivers a scathing assessment of employees’ trust in their business leaders.

Only 14 percent believe their companies’ leaders are ethical and honest. Ten percent trust management to make the right decisions in uncertain times. Twenty-five percent say they have less trust in management than they did last year — and that’s in an economy that is supposedly on the upswing, slow as it may be.

“Employee trust is such a critical factor for success, especially given what the American workforce has faced the past several years,” says Rick Garlick, Ph.D., senior director of strategic consulting and implementation with Martiz Hospitality Research Group. “This data paints such a dire picture of employee trust levels, management must ask themselves how they can better engage with their people.”

Business leaders could start with communication. Only 12 percent of workers believe their employers really listen to and care about employees. As with most business problems, improving communication can only help organizations rebuild trust between employees and their leaders. There is no downside to better communication.

Yet many business leaders sabotage their companies’ futures by cutting communication activities to the bone and acting as if employees are a necessary evil in the pursuit of profits. No need to discuss the business strategy with employees; they don’t care and they wouldn’t understand it anyway. No need to give workers an opportunity to express their opinions, ask questions or share ideas for improvement; that would only cost time and money, and besides, we know more about what needs to be done than they do. No need to share the stories of people who are doing great things to help the company succeed; it’s a waste of time and does nothing to help us make our numbers.

The fact is that communication is among the most powerful tools business leaders have at their disposal. Employees who see and hear and understand their management’s plans for the business are more likely to invest themselves in implementing those plans. Workers who feel valued and respected are more willing to plug in and do whatever it takes to help the business succeed. Employees who are treated like adults will act like adults; they’ll take responsibility and do difficult things and be productive.

Trust is the foundation of any relationship. You can’t trust someone you don’t know. And you can’t know someone if you don’t communicate with them. Regularly.

There’s been a lot of head scratching going on this year about why the economy has no steam behind it, even though we’ve turned the corner from the Great Recession. Maybe a good place for business leaders to start turning things around would be to take some solid steps toward rebuilding the trust of employees they have so obviously lost.


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