Well-Timed Words: Free and Effective

When I worked as the employee communications specialist for an AT&T manufacturing plant in the 1990s, the general manager asked my help in communicating with employees about the need for heavy overtime hours around the Christmas/New Year holidays. While employees generally liked getting overtime, they were not thrilled about working so much at that time of year.

The general manager and I talked about the issue and focused his message around the business need while acknowledging the sacrifice of family time during holidays that are so focused on families. We decided it would be appropriate — and a nice touch — for the general manager to write a letter to the families of employees, explaining the reasons for the overtime but mostly thanking them for giving up their family members at Christmas. We worked hard to make sure the letter sounded sincere (because he was sincere in his sentiment) and gracious.

It worked. While there was still some understandable grumbling, the general consensus was that the letter was well-received and that families appreciated the gesture.

That story illustrates the importance of business leaders acknowledging the social contract that exists between employees and organizations. We often think first of the monetary contract and many business leaders believe money is the greatest motivator for employees. While money is important, it is not the only factor at work in the workplace.

Scott Keller, a director at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, co-wrote a book, “Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage.” In a blog for the Harvard Business Review, Keller says his research for the book found that the social contract — the understanding between employees and their employers that is predicated on meaningfulness of the work — is more powerful than the monetary contract. He mentions hand-written thank-you notes from the CEOs of Wells Fargo and PepsiCo as examples of social gestures that provide tremendous motivation to employees.

“Some managers might dismiss these as token gestures with at best a limited impact,” Keller writes. “In keeping with the significant body of evidence from the social sciences, employees on the receiving end would beg to differ. They say that the resulting boost in motivation and connection to the leader and the company can last for months if not years.”

And he quotes Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, on communication’s vital role in the social contract: “Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free — and worth a fortune.”

I often hear resistance from managers, supervisors and even business leaders when it comes to providing those well-timed, sincere words of praise. Old-school managers who weren’t raised in such an environment dismiss words of praise as soft psychobabble. “They get a paycheck, that should be enough,” they grumble. Others simply blame their own lack of interpersonal communication skills or discomfort. “I’m just not comfortable in one-on-one situations,” they say, or “I get nervous in front of groups.”

Well, guess what. Being a leader sometimes requires us to stretch our skills and to do things we’re not entirely comfortable doing. In this post-recession, 21st century work environment, it’s time for leaders — at all levels — to get over their fear of real, organic communication and see what good comes from such an inexpensive investment in employee motivation. This is “small-c communication” at its best, a way to help re-engage a disengaged workforce for the tremendous challenges that lie ahead for every organization in this economy.



Creating a Culture of Honesty

I once worked for a company in which a change was coming to the department where I worked. It was a change that would be disruptive, as most changes are, and that would require adaptation by every person in the department.

After the change was in place, I asked a co-worker what she thought of the change. “I hate it,” she said. “I don’t see how this is going to make anything better. In fact, it’s making things worse. But I guess there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

I was impressed with her candor and honesty — until we and others in our department found ourselves in a conversation with the vice president to whom our department reported. The vice president asked us what we thought of the change. Everyone, including the woman who told me how much she hated the change, told the vice president that they thought it would require a little adjustment, but they were sure it would be great in the long run.

That kind of dishonesty happens all the time in workplaces. And dishonesty is not too strong a word to describe it. Feeling and believing one thing, but saying another, is the definition of dishonesty. It keeps teams from performing at a high level and it leads to all kinds of disharmony among co-workers. A company simply can’t get things done if this lack of integrity exists.

To overcome this kind of disingenuous behavior requires something of everyone at every level of a team:

  • Company leaders must set the tone and the expectation of honesty and integrity. And they must do more than just talk about it, they must demonstrate it. Leaders have tremendous influence on the culture of an organization. They must ensure their words truly reflect what they believe and that their actions match their words.
  • Mid-level managers, including the vice president in this example, must create an environment in which it is safe for employees to be candid and open. Employees must know they can express their worries and concerns and ask questions without fear of retribution. Often, retribution is not overt, such as terminating someone for speaking their mind. More often, it’s subtle — making life difficult for the employees who speak honestly, shutting them out of opportunities, constantly criticizing their work. Sometimes employees who speak honestly are labeled “malcontents” or “troublemakers,” and indeed some employees take on that role. But in order for a team to deal effectively with change and to perform at a high level, employees must feel safe in expressing their ideas, opinions and questions.
  • Once a trusting, safe environment is established, employees have a responsibility to speak sincerely and honestly. They will “test the system” first to see if it truly is safe to speak up, and then they must be vulnerable enough to trust it. In a culture of integrity and honesty, employees are obligated to say what is on their minds. That’s when the best ideas come forward and assumptions are challenged, which leads to growth.


In an interview with CBS News, President Barack Obama says the biggest mistake of his first term as president has been his inability “to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”

Obama’s presumptive opponent in this fall’s election, Republican Mitt Romney, pounced on his remarks, saying, “Being president is not about telling stories. Being president is about leading, and President Obama has failed to lead.”

This is not a political blog and what I’m about to say is not politically motivated. But Romney couldn’t be more wrong.

Yes, being president is about leading, but a big part of leadership is telling stories. Ronald Reagan knew it and that’s why he is still called “The Great Communicator.” The most successful CEOs also know it. I once worked for a company in which the CEO was obsessed with telling stories because he knew their power in helping employees understand his vision for the company. And in business as well as in government, those without a vision are lost.

Carol Kinsey Goman, a consultant and expert in culture change for business, wrote several years ago that “Good stories are more powerful than plain facts. This is not to reject the value in facts, of course, but simply to recognize their limits in influencing people. People make decisions based on what facts mean to them, not on the facts themselves. Stories give facts meaning. Stories resonate with adults in ways that can bring them back to a childlike open-mindedness — and make them less resistant to experimentation and change.”

I don’t know many people who would argue that change is not needed in our country. Obama ran and won on that platform, in fact. Perhaps he’s on to something. Those who believe he has failed to bring about the change he promised — and I would think Romney is among them — might consider that the president might be right in his assessment of his first term. Perhaps if he had been a better storyteller, more change might have happened.


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.


How Do You Communicate Safety?

I had an interesting conversation recently with the person in our company who is responsible for workplace safety. The company has set a challenging, yet entirely achievable, goal of zero injuries. We were talking about how to create a zero-injury culture in a global company with dozens of locations.

I recalled my first job in corporate communications. I worked in an AT&T manufacturing plant (AT&T has since spun off their manufacturing operations) and safety was also a priority there. During my eight years there, I had the safety mindset drilled into my head: Don’t enter a manufacturing area without safety glasses. Don’t walk with your head down or read while you’re walking. Be careful as you turn corners. Always have a top on cups filled with liquid. Don’t leave things precariously perched on overhead shelves. Avoid tripping hazards like loose cords or objects on the floor. Use handrails on stairs. Clean up your workspace at the end of the day. Drive slowly in the parking lot.

The company communicated those messages consistently and persistently. Over time, they stuck. Now, I find myself with the same mindset in my home — not that I’m perfect about following all the safety rules, but I’m painfully aware when I’m not.

I’ll be working with our company’s safety director to think about how we can effectively communicate the zero-injury culture to our employees around the world. I believe those consistent, persistent messages communicated over a period of time might do the trick. I’m interested in any other ideas or best practices out there that you’re willing to share. Use the comment box to share yours.

Does Culture Matter? Ask Goldman Sachs

If you think company culture built on solid values isn’t important, take a look at what Goldman Sachs is dealing with today.

In a New York Times op-ed, company executive Greg Smith tells why he is leaving the company — and it isn’t pretty. He delivers a scathing indictment of the company’s culture, which he says has devolved from one of integrity and doing the right thing to one in which the only thing that matters is making a profit. As if any financial services company needed this kind of press right now.

“It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you,” Smith writes. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are.”

He adds:

I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons. People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm — or the trust of its clients — for very much longer.

A company’s culture does matter — not only to the people who work there, but ultimately to its customers. Garbage in, garbage out. If your business is built on the sands of profit at any cost, it will eventually come crashing to the ground.

This op-ed also serves as a warning to business leaders who think they can keep such betrayal of corporate values inside the family. The age of social media has made employees a lot more brazen. They will air your dirty laundry and it will go viral, just as this article is.

Years ago, I parted ways with a company I believed in because my boss asked me to do something that violated my professional standards. What he asked me to do wasn’t illegal, but I just couldn’t do it and continue to function in my role with a clear conscience. I strongly believed my boss’s behavior — and my dismissal after challenging it — also violated the company’s stated values.

If enough people feel that way often enough, sooner or later a company will see talented and engaged employees looking to work elsewhere. And that is a real business problem.



The Rodney Dangerfield of PR

“Employee communication is the Rodney Dangerfield of PR.”

That’s the assessment of Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., the Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama. While researching the latest literature on best practices in employee communication, I came across his excellent speech delivered in October 2011 to the PRSA International Conference. In it, Dr. Berger makes a compelling case that in spite of all the research proving the business value of employee communication — and there has been much in the last 10 years — it still gets no respect.

Dr. Berger argues that employee communication in most companies is “utter folly” because they “continue to act against their own self interests by perpetuating failed communication programs that drive employee distrust and
cynicism and reduce engagement and commitment.”

He adds: “We know what needs to be done to create cultures for communication, but too many organizations just don’t do it. They fail to move from KNOWING to DOING.”

I’ve chosen to make employee communication my career because I believe in its potential to change and drive organizations. I’m passionate about it (despite agreeing with Dr. Berger that employee communication is decidedly not as sexy as media relations or crisis communications). From the beginning, though, I had to dig deep for research that bears out employee communication’s value. Well, we have the research, so now there’s not much excuse for organizations that fail to actually do something.

Read Dr. Berger’s lecture here. It’s only 10 pages and worth every minute if you believe, as I do, that employee communication is the most important communication in which an organization can engage.