Fixing the disconnect - Time for leaders to scrap their cognitive biases and communicate for impact
The disconnect between leaders and employees is real and urgent. Here are some thoughts on cognitive biases around communications that are making this worse, and actions leaders can take to create a genuine practice of impact communications. (Warning: Long. I have many thoughts.)
'No relationship has been changed more by the pandemic than the one between employers and employees.’ Larry Fink’s annual 2022 letter to CEOs
Breaking the umbilical cord of the office has given employees freedom of choice as to how, when and where they work. Typical management structures are dissolving. This has also changed communication - top-down communication styles are a thing of the past. Leaders are learning that they need to engage in dialogue and empower their teams to work independently. For this to be successful, they need to build trust by letting go, while at the same time connecting work with the highest strategic needs of the company.
However, leaders are often held back by their cognitive biases around the role of communications and its ability to help them achieve their strategic goals. These are some of those biases:
- Communications is easy
Communicating badly might be easy, but communicating well and in an inspiring way that helps employees understand their role in company strategy is hard. The misapprehension that communication is easy comes from the baseline that we all communicate. If I phone my mother for a ten minute chat that is considered communicating. However, if I send my niece in Singapore $30 via PayPal for her birthday, I don’t claim I am running payroll. Communications is the only corporate function that cannot guardrail its own area of expertise, because it is something that everybody does.
- Communications is operational
Leaders tend to think that communication is not strategic, because they see communicators focusing on organisational topics. The energy and focus of communicators is a zero-sum game, and operations will always eat strategy. Leaders need to state upfront what percentage of time they want communicators to focus on strategy versus operations and then empower them to say no to additional operations topics. One of the biggest challenges communicators face is overload - and if they are struggling, imagine how hard it is for employees who is supposed to receive, decode and work out how to respond to all these topics.
- Communications is cosmetic
Old-school communications was tasked with ‘making it look nice’ by fixing grammar and choosing pretty images. Leaders need to focus employees' attention on strategy and getting their buy-in. This is even more challenging in a distributed environment. Communicating well is strategy. The two cannot be separated. This is a paradigm shift that successful companies are only just learning.
- PR is the most strategic part of the communications function
Look through the LinkedIn job portals for communicators and PR is the most highly sought-after skill. In the attention economy, with ongoing change, crises and media companies cutting their staff, there is no way to control media attention. Any company that controls media attention is doing so through luck (either good or bad), or a highly charismatic or highly attention-seeking CEO.
The touchstone for strong narratives and strategic direction is good employee communications. Once you have an employee base of 500 or 5,000 or 50,000 behind you, who understand the company narrative and can articulate their role in it, the media stories will tell themselves. Companies currently weight PR to employee communications in the realm of 70:30 in terms of budget and resources. It is time to flip the switch. Media attention is a battle no-one can win. Focus instead on the internal battles. You can win those.
For more on this, see my post Hobbits rule. Or, it's not all PR, people.
- Channels equal employee communications
Many leaders believe that if they have channels that they fill with content, they have employee communications. This is the broadcast style of communications, which in the attention economy is rapidly becoming obsolete. Communication is about creating context, meaning and connection. The strategic importance of employee communications changes everything, but only if everything is connected.
Towards impact communications
It is way past time for the art of words to transcend into a science of communications. The pace of change, the attention economy, the move to digital, the broken trust between leaders and employees all require a new impact-centred communication that matches the needs of twenty-first century organisations.
In order to address the miasma of distrust and broken communications and move towards impact communications, leaders and communicators need to repeat simple messages, make ethical choices and put technology to work.
Repeat and be simple
'In a metaanalysis of 97 studies on persuasive message campaigns, researchers found the single biggest predictor of success was message consistency.’ Zoe Chance - Professor, Yale School of Management, on Twitter.
It is important to understand how information consumption works. It is clear that complex stories and ideas don’t land. No-one remembers Hillary Clinton’s campaign messages from the 2016 US election, but a 10-year-old can tell you that Donald Trump’s was ‘Make America Great Again’. No-one remembers Labour’s pro-EU messages from the 2019 UK election, but everyone can tell you that Boris Johnson promised to get Brexit done. Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has demonstrated messaging brilliance during his country's invasion by Russia.
Leaders who are able to distill messages to their essence, and then repeat them, get elected. In business, leaders who distill messages to their essence and repeat them, build followers. The messages need to be backed up by context, meaning and stories, but the taglines need to be as simple and repeatable as possible.
Purpose matters. Surveys show that younger employees will give up title and compensation for work that aligns with their values (86% versus 9% of Baby Boomers). The commitment to purpose needs to come from leadership and it must be genuine. Inauthentic words or actions are quickly exposed. Leaders need to establish a purpose backbone for their companies and be prepared to take a stand when a customer or supplier does not meet that.
Purpose has often been ridiculed as fluffy. But in today’s great resignation, employees are voting with their feet. Lives are too short to spend time working for companies they do not regard as ethical.
Put tech to work
Technology is the most ignored part of modern communications. Leaders still rely on the opinion of the highest paid person in the office (HiPPO). Opinions of highly paid people are great, but they must be backed up by actionable data. There are two main technology challenges - legacy channels that have a low reach or employee impact and disconnected tools that lack insight and efficiency. To run communications for maximum impact, companies need a joined-up communications technology landscape.
Thirty years ago, the marketing function reinvented itself from the realm of opinionated experts to a buying centre based on measurement and response. HR started building technology in 1951. The time has come for communications to do the same.
Communications has for too long languished on the edges of corporate relevance. Leaders need to wake up. Their most strategic tool for creating connection with employees who are poised to push eject is sitting there. They just need to use it properly. And the outcome of this will be stronger connection, the rebuilding of broken trust and a communications function fit for purpose in a world where change, crisis and divide are the norm.
Charlotte believes that in the attention economy, strategy and story need to be symbiotic.