Here’s to the Carols!

progressprinciple

Sorry to drag out this old cliche, but I’ve got to say it: “If you only read one business book this year…” make it “The Progress Principle” by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

The principle goes like this: The inner work life of an employee influences their performance, and the most powerful positive influence on inner work life is progress in meaningful work.

My experience has been that it’s hard to overstate this principle.  Behind every call for a more robust communications environment in companies lies a hope that, if we can just pour more high-quality content on people, morale and engagement and performance will improve, once and for all.  But these two researchers offer compelling evidence that what matters more than websites or videos or email blasts or break-room parties—way more—is believing your efforts are productive on important tasks on a daily basis.

And they reframe the definition of a successful manager to mean someone who can enable that progress for their people.  The book gives a great checklist of ways managers can get that done.

So far, I have yet to work for a business that makes that skill a core focus of managerial training and development, or a systematic criteria for promotion.  For the moment, companies marvel when they see it and say something like, “Clone him!”

My boss Carol* was one of those people who just got it and did it, over and over.  Rather than say, “Don’t bring me problems, only solutions,” she expected me to bring forward problems she could actually help resolve as part of her role, and then she actually resolved them.  She stayed involved without micromanaging—”checking in without checking up,” in the lingo of the book.  She’d fight and defend upwards for our team’s ideas when they were sound.  She gave us a bye on administrivia when it threatened a greater good, including down time or time with our families.

In terms of communication, she was transparent, pertinent, clear and empathic.  She did not create communications channels to do this, but her modeling of it enabled us to do this for each other as team members and for others outside the team.  The primary test of effective business communications has got to be whether it enables employees’ progress in meaningful work.

This is why, in consulting with businesses, I start out with an analysis of how teams are functioning and communicating among themselves at present, before deploying any specific tactics.  When I know that teams are already clear on A and B, but what they need is a C, that C gets gobbled up for its usefulness the moment it’s available.  And when teams are struggling with the basics—trust, clarity, focus, resources—I suggest pausing elaborate communications vehicles until the basics can be meaningfully addressed.  Because happy-talk communications in a toxic environment can actually be money spent widening the credibility gap between employees and leadership.

* As it happens, I’ve worked for several Carols—even one Carole—and they all exhibited these qualities.  Maybe there actually is some cloning going on . . .

How have you seen the Progress Principle at work in your business or team?

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Alumni, or refugees?

woman running ID-10059483 David Castillo

Anybody who has ever left one company for another—or for nothing—has felt the tug of that question.  Many companies are putting big effort into ensuring that employees who leave remain loyal, in-touch, connected-to-the-brand types who see themselves as proud alumni of an outstanding organization.  Networks, websites, special events, online groups: all to keep everybody feeling the love.

The opposite, of course, is to have someone flee the organization, that very day, with only the clothes on their back, shattered by trauma, disillusioned / angry / lawyered up.  Oh, and with accounts on several public online forums.

This first-person piece by Will Blythe in The New York Times describes a typical method many businesses to foreclose any problems with the latter: the growing use of non-disparagement clauses in separation agreements.  I think we can quickly make three obvious observations about the impressions created by this:

1. A company that wishes you to say only good things about them by making you swear not to say bad things about them is admitting they are on the “Great Places to Work, But” list.

2. A company that believes you’re willing to sell some of your right to free speech for money may not have had the highest view of you in the first place.

3. The company’s balanced scorecard may be broken; or, in Blythe’s words, “If a company isn’t strong enough to be reproached, then it simply isn’t strong enough, period.”

Back home in Indiana, we used to call this shutting the barn doors after the cows had run out.  Maybe it prevents a future bad thing from happening, but it certainly can’t engender a good thing.

Breaking up is hard to do, whether it’s a termination for cause, restructuring, layoff or performance.  In the course of my work, I have written the scripts used for these discussions.  I always said that highest standard to observe was whether some version of the same language used in recruiting and hiring could be used in the separation discussion, not as a moment of gross cynicism but as proof there had been a consistency to the employee experience at every stage, with this particular stage as an unfortunate but at least understandable outcome.

Few businesses meet that standard.  But more could if they chose to.  Truth-telling and consistency long before the end make more alumni out of potential refugees than any legal requirement.

How can you better understand the life-cycle of your employees and improve it with strategic communication?

Image courtesy of David Castillo / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

More messages, please!

smiling man ID-100194422 stockimagesThere’s a look people can get — I can close my eyes and see it.  I’m sitting around the table of a team charged with a major change initiative, like a multi-year supply-chain process overhaul.  Toward the end of the long meeting, when everyone is exhausted with the enormity of the task and uncertain of its success, the team lead turns to me with a weary-smile / “save me” face and says, “Now . . . communications!”

If Google had an online translator for business speak, the return would read: “We’re going to have to massively change people’s minds about this project they’re sure to hate, and the only way that will happen is if you deluge them with messages, please.”

I’m jumping you to the middle of this thought-leadership piece from Boston Consulting Group, Creating People Advantage 2013, with this great quote (emphasis mine):

Although many leaders think that shaping the culture is mainly a communication effort, success requires actively changing the environment in order to embed cultural shifts and make behaviors stick. In many cases, this is a big investment and can mean transforming processes that have a strong impact on the company’s culture, such as budgetary oversight and control, strategic planning, capital expenditure controls, and performance and career management. And generally, it is the leaders themselves who must change their behavior.

Few weary teams expect to hear it, but all of those transformed processes ARE the communications that people will receive, much more so than emails and briefings and updates and contests.   Often my role has been to hold the message-cascade plan hostage until the team has scanned all of those other channels before going further.  In one case, we reinvigorated a moribund reward and recognition program and knocked down some real incentives for people to participate in change.  Another time, I proposed delay of a message to union employees until the “enhanced” benefit it announced could be revisited and actually enhanced.

The truth is that a bunch more messages about anything are absolutely the last thing that beleaguered and over-messaged employees want next.  What most projects need is a communicator with the ability and savvy to put communications last and to help think through all of the design elements of change first.

What would help your project teams take a new approach to communications?

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Live-tweet Q&A. What could possibly go wrong?

https://twitter.com/KaiFarrell_/status/390831340582477824

While there have been a number of recent, notorious social-media fails in the past few years, this one with British Gas feels especially case-study worthy.

The day they announced a sizable rate increase, BG pushed out Twitter hashtag #AskBG to field questions from the public.  Online Q&A, live.  Following a very negative announcement that impacted millions.  I guess they were thinking people would queue up at the virtual mic and ask penetrating but civil questions—you know, the way they do at town-hall meetings.  Well, have a look.

Predictably / sadly, BG circled the wagons on this one.  Apparently someone made a calculation that the perception of transparency was worth the snark-infested waters  (note the metric of 11,000 tweets sent as of the first day).  Or they thought that, since someone would probably have created a nega-site, anyway, better to get out in front of it by sponsoring it.  These would be sensible if you don’t factor in the possibility of looking ridiculous.

Two temptations here.  One is thinking that any channel can be shaped to contain any message.  Another is thinking social media are especially adept at creating credibility no matter what.  But no communications technology or platform has its own aura.  The same platform that can seem to create intimacy can also seem to create distance.  The new meta-problem this creates is that perception of your communication IQ now becomes perception of your business acumen or of how you view your employees and customers.  Examples abound (I’ve seen all these and more):

  • Scripting your outsourced customer service reps with appreciation and empathy sentences
  • Having an emcee moderate a live Q&A session with the CEO
  • Blast emailing a PowerPoint deck to explain the rationale behind a merger
  • Separating an employee via a phone call
  • Waiting to discuss anything related to a crisis until Legal signs off on everything
  • Robocalling customers with a pre-recorded message about a service interruption
  • Introducing a new executive with Too Much Information about their personal life

One blogger thought BG could have tweaked their approach by using Twitter better.  Even then, it would be important to know the context of BG’s social-media reputation to date before heading toward a tactic like this.  Clearly, the very next thing BG does in the social space will demonstrate whether they’ve gotten smarter from this experience.

How can you tell in advance what will work and what won’t?

What is this great culture of which you speak?

Mind the gap

It’s a day of awards and recognition and being a “best company” and thrilled-employee videos.  Appearing on lists, cake in the break room, “top 100” logos on Careers pages.  It’s all good.  If nothing else, there’s a lot better benchmarking going on between companies and daylight into each others’ best practices or pitfalls.

Good for everybody, except the people who aren’t feeling the love.

In one company, our communications function became so effective at garnering external plaudits for our work culture that we got concerned about the new problem of alienating people, especially—and most critically—managers who were having a hard time delivering the goods.  That’s what prompted our team leader to return from a trip to London with the ubiquitous Tube sign above.

“Mind the Gap” became a mantra for us.  How can we bring everybody along?  Not just the 20% in the 80/20 rule, but those whole pockets of people who can be left out even in an awesome culture—sort of the corporate equivalent of those cut-off soldiers still fighting World War II.  Aside from disengagement, in this environment of easy trolling, dissatisfied and overworked employees can find the time to post blistering reviews of company life online.

And those managers, who are supposed to mediate the culture to their teams—even to the point of being evaluated for it.  One manager is truly struggling when all of his team’s empowered women professionals are out on mat leave at the same time, and he’s now lobbying for a revised maternity policy.  Another has drained her L&D budget, swamped by requests for tuition assistance.  Another had team members reading about the benefits enjoyed in another department, and the lateral-move defections have begun.

This kind of problem really ratchets up the need for the communicators to do audience segmentation and targeted outreach, with just the right metrics for results.  The communications metric can’t be did everybody click on the benefits brochure?  It’s got to be a smarter assessment of how the situation should change for the team or the office or the beleaguered business unit.

Winning the award is Part One.  Follow-through is Part Two.  How is your communications function acting as a trusted advisor to move the culture forward and not merely promote it?

The scariest risk in corporate life is . . .

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Check this out: According to a Deloitte survey of 300 C-level executives, board members and risk executives globally, the highest ranking fear factor for the future of their businesses was the disruptive effect of social media.

“Which of the following technology enablers and/or disruptors do you believe may threaten your business model?”

 Social media  47%

Data mining and analytics  44%

Mobile applications  40%

Cloud computing  38%

Cyber attacks  36%

All of the surveyed companies have annual revenues of US$1 billion or equivalent, so that’s the first clue to these results: the bigger the company, the less perceived ability to control social.  By contrast, other items on the list look more “controllable” through technology, safeguards, processes and the like.  But who can control what someone else wants to say about you, to the entire Internet, after business hours?

It’s been said for some time that corporate culture is the ultimate differentiator, the ultimate brand and the ultimate driver of customer loyalty.  Social is where the rubber meets the road on this point.  Social goes well when all of the other important things are going well: fence line communities feel respected, analysts and shareholders experience transparency, employees are treated like human beings, customers feel valued.  When the fundamentals are in place, you have a healthy organism that can fight off small problems or pop-up perceptions.

If the fundamentals are flawed, no risk management strategy can save you.

This is why big businesses may have more to fear; with larger organizations and multiple moving parts, they aren’t even sure where all the ducks are, never mind getting them to queue up.

The old corporate responsibility mantra of “doing well by doing good” means more now than ever.  There are ranks and ranks of communicators inside and outside your business who are more than willing to opine on what they see.  Social gives them a megaphone; what you need to give them is a great experience engaging with you.

Internal communications functions do their most important work when they both create and serve as two-way channels between employees and management.  The better an organization really knows itself, the easier to make meaningful change and improvement.

When was the last time you did an organizational audit of your two-way communications effectiveness?

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When did a 35% engagement level become good news?

exit sign ID-100136446

Gallup came out with a study this year, State of the American Workplace, that they say identifies trends in employee engagement.  Different blogs have picked up on different sections of the report.  One blog echoed a report finding about working remotely, noting that engagement goes up to a “high” of 35% when people are allowed to telework up to 20% of the time.

So . . . yay?  That particular glass looks more than half empty to me.

In Gallup’s terms, the remaining 65% is made up of “not engaged” (putting in the hours, but not making extra effort or feeling the love) and “actively disengaged” (taking action to undermine others’ team or individual contributions).  Sixty-five percent.

Companies have probably resigned themselves to a one-third level of engagement as a matter of pragmatism—they probably also figure things aren’t much better at their competitors.  But that resignation leaves money on the table, not to mention keeps the business open to a whole range of considerable risks.

Gallup’s particular tack to addressing this is to focus employees on the customer experience and building the brand of the business.  I’ve seen this work, sadly with greatest effect in disaster remediation: when the whole business rallies to salvage a large-customer problem with accelerated effort, urgent teaming, milestone rewards.  Nothing like a crisis to focus the mind.

And the overall impetus to better engage workers with the business is directionally correct. But using this approach alone risks missing some of the underlying dissatisfaction and looking like you’re papering over real problems with a veneer of “just work harder.”  I’ve always found it helpful to sort dissatisfaction into higher-order and lower-order issues:

EE dissatisfaction

My theorem of employee satisfaction is this: People will believe in your efforts to resolve higher-order problems if you have methods to resolve lower-order problems at the same time.  Put another way, as a communicator nothing is worse than trying to serve the needs of senior management who want to communicate the urgency of a business case when no one is remediating the basics of the employee value proposition.

One of the best parts about being a business communicator is the opportunity to act as a bridge between employees and management, because both of those groups think they know more about the other’s situation than they really do.  Good communicators have a gut feel about what will fly and what won’t—and they also know when communications alone won’t solve underlying situational problems.

Nobody should be satisfied with 35% engagement.  How could your business learn what it “doesn’t know it doesn’t know” when it comes to energizing employee’s contributions?

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