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What’s stopping leaders from saying it like it is?

Date: Mar 22 2016
What’s stopping leaders from saying it like it is?

There have been many organisations caught in the spotlight of the media glare after a crisis in recent years and as each of those stories hit the headlines it has made me think of the people working in those businesses. What must they be feeling?

What an organisation does in a time of crisis is a real insight into their approach to comms.  Are the communications timely, are the messages honest and leadership open, are the messages consistent over time and both internally and externally?

Recently Volkswagon and its use of the defeat device to trick the emissions targets hit the headlines. There was also the latest probe into Tesco’s business practices, this time surrounding accounting practices and its mal-treatment of suppliers. These are just a couple of stories that were hitting the headlines as we headed out of 2015 and into 2016.

We know that in the example of VW that on 25 September 2015, “VW appointed Porsche chief Matthias Müller as group chief executive” and “the carmaker blamed the scandal on a ‘small group’ of people and says a small number have been suspended” according to the Guardian timeline on the scandal.

Meanwhile, in Tesco, the ‘commercial team’ that managed the supplier relationships, has been renamed the ‘product team’ and new senior managers have been brought into that team. Indicating that here, as in VW, it was a team of individuals at the centre of this problem as reported by the FT.com.

It appears, the external message is clear: ‘It’s ok, we’ve found the source of the problem (a small group of employees), we’re dealing with it, you can trust us.’

Culture and people

Were both of these organisations exposed to ‘renegade groups’ of people who were operating outside of their company’s culture, in a way that got results at any cost? Or has a ‘small group’ of individuals been blamed for their actions that the culture of these businesses has ‘allowed to happen’, or even encouraged through internal demands to meet carbon emissions standards or financial targets?

There is of course a need to explain publicly what has happened, how and why. By stating that ‘a group’ of individuals has been blamed, a company is presenting a view that the problem is contained, not endemic across the organisation and that it can be trusted.

‘You can still buy a car from VW and your groceries from Tesco, because that doesn’t happen anymore.’

These businesses need to show shareholders, regulators, the media and their customers that they are toeing the line. They aim to protect their reputation and ultimately their profits.

Internal vs External comms

In situations like these communication and every single nuance of it is analysed and carefully managed. Crisis meetings, counsel from trusted advisors, communication and crisis management strategies are employed to help the leadership to reach a decision on who should say what, when and how to say it.

But I wonder if the priority is more often than not given to the external representation of an organisation rather than on the internal interpretation whilst considering the effects of the crisis and how the organisation handles it on employees first and foremost.

I studied the relationship between crisis communication and management and employee engagement as part of my internal communication diploma. It was fascinating to see the dynamic between the two play out in a variety of organisations that had faced a range of different crises.

The prevailing truth among them was that those with a strong culture of engagement and trust with a sense of purpose and community fared better during crisis and recovered more quickly after the height of the crisis had passed. In an example I studied the business depended upon its people to share externally just how well it was doing to manage the crisis. Trust, transparency, openness and consistency were key to this organisation’s success during this crisis and a clear organisational strength.

In contrast in a different organisation, where its processes and business practices had let it down, the dynamic between internal and external was fraught. Many people in the organisation felt targeted, blamed and not trusted. While externally there was not a particularly cohesive or believable message. The organisation remains staunch in its stance that it’s dealing with the process issues and changing its ways. Meanwhile the story rumbles on in the press and there’s constant pressure on the leadership team from both inside and outside the business.

In the organisations I studied, those that did well during their crises scored highly when it came to the four employee engagement enablers: Leadership, engaging managers, employees voice and organisation integrity. (Engage for success), and ensured their internal and external communications were integrated and transparent.

Those that didn’t do well weren’t actively considering employee engagement as part of their strategy at all, but instead just cared about the external audiences, even creating a situation where more was said externally than internally adding to the sense of distrust among the employees.

You can’t separate internal and external comms anymore. Organisations are leaky, with communication leaking in and out of them continually. Releasing an internal-only message cannot be expected to stay internal, and if you release news externally before telling your employees expect to get push back from employees.  How you manage your business could be under the spotlight at any moment as customers and employees use social media to share their views of your organisation.

I don’t know what it’s like for the people at Tesco or VW in the wake of the recent crises, and I don’t know all the nuances of their crisis management plans but having teams of people blamed for the problems would make me feel undervalued and frustrated as an employee in that circumstance.

So, why do businesses put external audiences first when we know that putting employees first invariably leads to better business?

They focus on money and profits instead of a clear purpose (for which profit may be an outcome).

Of course every listed company has a hoard of shareholders wanting to protect their investments and at times this focus on money can cloud organisational thinking. Especially at times of extreme pressure, when the risks and potential losses are higher. But the long-term view would take into account the dip in business and then see it recover as the business regains credibility for admitting the mistake, working to resolve the issue and restoring trust.

Fearful of admitting a mistake?

Undoubtedly with shareholders, regulators and the world’s media watching, admitting something is wrong is one thing, but to admit you made a mistake and possibly caused something to go wrong is an even bigger challenge. Especially in the corporate world where making mistakes is still not commonly publicly admitted to.

The old school of PR spin may have worked before social media when you could try to control the story and message through a broadcast only media but now with the world truly connected the truth will out and if it’s not your customers it may be your employees who will make sure the world hears the truth.

Being truthful from the start should just be business as normal, even if that means admitting you messed up.

When you put the external audiences and money before the truth, how does it make employees feel?

Devalued, not trusted, disengaged…

Which in turn has an impact on how much employees will trust the organisation. Productivity losses, increased costs in staff turnover and or sickness absence, failure to deliver on strategy and more may present as outcomes of the challenging period and beyond.

Why don’t businesses take a more converged approach to communication?

Often this is because comms is carved up by tactics and channels and not by the strategic value it can add to a business. Media and PR often sit with Marketing because it’s (wrongly) considered to be ‘all about selling more stuff’, while internal comms is also misplaced as being ‘all about HR and getting people to do the stuff we need them to do to do their jobs’, so that sits with HR. This somewhat old school view of comms and dividing it into subsets may make it easier to manage in terms of people and time, but it leads to countless challenges in a world where communication leaks in and out of organisations continually, where we all expect more from our work, where we care about how the businesses we work for behave, and where as customers we care about how a business behaves and how it treats its people. It’s all connected and comms needs to be a strategic function working across the business in all that it does. Communication no longer just about broadcast. Communication is about listening, consumer insights, employee voice and understanding the sentiment across the business as much as it is about craft and content.

How can internal communication help businesses cope better during a crisis?

Be prepared and develop a trusting culture

Give your business and leaders the confidence to speak the truth. Start small, help leaders to listen to employees without always knowing the answers. Show your business how listening to employees can make a big difference to the way you do business. It’ll stand the business in good stead should the worst happen and a crisis hits.

Be clear on your organisational purpose

If your business purpose is not clear and understood or your values on the walls do not reflect the reality of your organisation find out why not and what the reality of work is. From this audit you can take stock and decide upon a strategy to solve the problem.

Make communication a strategic priority

Consider communication at a strategic level. If you’re an internal comms pro in-house, develop your skills and knowledge so that you can become strategic and trusted advisors to the exec team. Back up your thinking with facts and figures from the business. Show the exec team how internal communication makes a difference to the business success.

Work with your communication colleagues. Make sure that communication is not just about broadcast and that you listen and share your knowledge.

Internal communication needs to be represented in the crisis team to make sure that the message to employees is managed well and that employees concerns can be fed back into the process.

During a crisis provide advice, the tools and the knowledge of how to manage your communication with employees to help them cope with the crisis, and help the organisation through it.

Tell it like it is.