What’s the rush?

I have a passion for understanding organisations. Getting underneath the strategy, financial goals and organisational charts to really understand how it works is probably the main reason I became an expert in internal communication.

I have spent most of my career in-house and working with an employee base that is predominately remote. Remote meaning they work in a shop, on a train, on a factory line or are out on the road all day.

In January the Gatehouse State of the Sector survey told us that remote workers were one of our biggest challenges yet we seem to do nothing to explore why. It’s the reason I’m doing a research project with SocialOptic to understand what we really need to do to make a significant change in how we engage and communicate with this group of employees.

But how did we get things so wrong? I’m speaking to the business leaders out there. The CEO’s, the CFO’s, the management consultants, the investors and the analysts. How have we created cultures in organisations where all we focus on is the money? And we focus on it so much, it is to the detriment of people’s well-being, motivation and engagement. Why?

We are talking with people who are working 12 hour shifts, often working to serve the general public and help them eat, get from a to b, clean up after them – the list goes on. Why do we think it is ok to focus so much on the money that we stop talking to these people, we stop listening to their point of view and we stop working together to make the organisation a success?

I can only think it’s because we believe we don’t have the time. We don’t have the time to find out what people really want or need and then we don’t have the time to analyse that and work through what it means and how we can change.

It’s all a lie. We do have the time, we just choose to prioritise focussing on cutting labour, driving efficiencies and adding in processes to protect loss or waste.

What would happen if we took that focus and pointed it towards conversation, coordination and collaboration? If we decided to work with management consultants who are specialists in communication (like me and others I know well) and spend 3-6 months understanding an organisation to make it better through more open dialogue and listening to understand (not to tick a box) we might, might, actually make a difference. A difference to the bottom line and those thousands of people, those human beings who strive for social connection. They want to be motivated through autonomy, mastery and purpose and they want you to remember that relationships at work are important – it doesn’t matter where you are on the org chart – we are all human.

When I shared this post with Benjamin Ellis from SocialOptic he commented: “Leaders seem to forget that profit comes from people – for a services business, the people determine the quality of the product, just as they do in a product business. People think profitability comes from process or systems, and forget that people are a critical part of the “people, processes and systems” mix.

The trick is talking in ‘hard/quantitative’ language to get them to fix the ‘soft/qualitative’ problems. These people think in numbers, because they don’t have the skills to think any other way.”

If you are reading this and you are leading one of our FTSE businesses think about where you’re allocating your budget and why. Because I guarantee there are answers to all the problems you think you have across your organisation and I’m sure you believe that everyone has the right to be listened to. To unlock the potential, consider how you motivate your teams and how you equip your line managers to have conversations that enable them to listen and take action.

The importance of communication in your organisation

Earlier this month I hosted a workshop with Neil Tomalin to discuss the importance of communication inside organisations. As a roundtable discussion we wanted to speak to those who don’t work in a communications function to help them explore their own communication style, understand a bit more about internal communication and its significance in the workplace and draw on some of Neil’s research into authenticity.

What makes someone a good communicator?

We kicked off the breakfast session exploring the traits of a good or bad communicator. Worryingly, it was hard for anyone to give an example of someone who is the best in their business – which just reaffirmed the need for the workshop! 

The list from the group was:

  • Thought about the audience
  • Limits emails so that they have purpose
  • Responds timely
  • Uses a mix of methods (phone, face to face etc)
  • Brings a human element to it – not afraid to not be perfect
  • Influencing skills
  • Authentic without spin – honest even in uncertainty

It was clear that there are some leaders or people in teams who are naturally good communicators, but because this isn’t consistent across the business it can make others look even worse. This part of the discussion cements my view that all leaders and line managers should have a communications coach and/or communication training.

Language is more important than ever

When it comes to the worst communicators, the use of jargon was a big factor. People don’t want to say they don’t understand something and the language of the business can often be riddled with acronyms or phrases. We know that theory suggests only 7% of total communication is language, 38% is tone and 55% is body language. Today, we use digital communication over most other forms and as a result, the words we use are becoming more and more important – don’t get sucked into the acronyms and the jargon in the workplace – remember there are new people starting all the time who would be lost without clear, plain English.

We are all responsible for communicating effectively

We based the conversation around my definition of internal communication which is: Everything that gets said and shared inside an organisation. As a function, its role is to curate, enable and advise on best practise for organisations to communicate effectively, efficiently and in an engaging way.

What can often happen is an assumption that someone is responsible when in fact, no one is. We all need to take responsibility as individuals and/or leaders to look at how we communicate. We need to explore how we ensure what we say is received in the way we intended – how often do we check that what has been said has been understood?

Being authentic will build trust – be adaptable but own your style

Neil’s research into authenticity is a great insight into how we behave in meetings. Many in the room shared examples of how they adapt depending on the nature of the meeting or the people involved. This is very common and no bad thing, but my counsel would be to ensure that your consistent with some elements. People need to know ‘who’ is coming to the meeting – if you’re always different, people won’t get a sense of who you are and your ability to influence and gain trust will be lost.

Our five next steps

  1. No organisation recognised good communication with an annual award. What would be the impact if a simple measure like this was introduced into your organisation? Would it mean you could identify positive role models more easily?
  2. Create your own definition or share the one we discussed and explore what this means for your team.
  3. Create an open conversation by asking your boss, peers and team this question: what type of working relationship would you like to have with me?
  4. Create your own ‘feedback loop’ to assess the effectiveness of your communication style. Do this simply by asking work colleagues about the timeliness, clarity and appropriate nature of the messages you send.
  5. Use the 5-character card to improve your observation skills at meetings. Are you a mouse, cat, dog, owl or shark? What roles are your colleagues assuming? To an impartial observer, what messages do the way you run meetings deliver about your company culture?

This was the first in what we hope will turn into a series of conversations about the importance of communication in the workplace. With many organisations not investing in an internal communications function (although the trend is that this is improving) we are keen to help operations directors, finance directors, managing directors and others understand how important their communication style is and how it can impact business performance.

If you’d like us to run a dedicated workshop in your office just get in touch and we can create something bespoke for your team: info@redefiningcomms.com

Book Review: Get Social by Michelle Carvill: Social media strategy and tactics for leaders

When this book arrived, and I started to read a bit about who it was aimed at I wasn’t too sure why Kogan Page sent it to me to review. The book is aimed at leaders to help them understand the world of social media and how to use it for the benefit of their organisations and their own brand.

After reading the first chapter, I wanted to tell every person working in communications to grab a copy, read it and use it to help influence senior people in their organisations. The practical tips coupled with the research and theory help make this a book grounded in facts and helpful advice. Having already recommended it to a few clients, I thought I would share some of the main themes I took from it:

In a VUCA world social media can help you navigate
The military phrase VUCA has featured a lot in this book and others this year. Meaning Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – it is a very good description of both the world and the workplace. To operate in a VUCA world, the positives of social media can’t be ignored and Carvill lists the clear benefits; enables you to listen in real time, share your viewpoint, defend or speak up and also share your values or your brand’s values.

In a VUCA world, which is fast paced, opinionated and transparent, the role of social media has never been more important. Just because you’re not there, doesn’t mean people aren’t talking about you, your brand or your organisation.

The importance of listening is cemented throughout the book and in my previous roles I have often be surprised at the lack of listening that takes place – internally and externally. As a leader in an organisation, listening should never be under-utilised.

Trust and authenticity
Social media is a place for you to have conversations linked to your values. It is a space to share views and interact with a variety of stakeholders (employees, shareholders, analysts, customers – the list goes on). The research cited from BrandFog 2016 tells us that 82% of respondents were more likely to trust a company whose leadership team engages in social media and 85% believe that CEOs can use social media channels to improve engagement with employees.

Linking this to other research in the book, it is easy to draw the conclusion that using social media engenders trust, builds brand engagement, builds employee engagement, keeps you tuned in to current sentiment and safeguards reputation management.

The importance of content and getting past the fear
A series of tables and models will help you have conversations around the purpose of social media for the individual. Exploring the balance between curation, repurposed, created and spontaneous content and keeping your goal to engage a reader top of mind will help you map out the content strategy for the channels.
Mapping this with a clear view on whether you want to entertain, educate, inspire or promote will help you plan your activity linked to the goals and objectives of the business.

Fear seems to be the main reason for people to avoid social. But if the purpose for using the channel and the content is strategically thought through, then the fear can easily disappear. The more authentic you are, the less you will struggle. The examples from the interviews with CEO’s from a variety of organisations will help provide real examples of individuals who have removed the fear and seen the benefits.

Carvill includes paragraphs from interviews conducted with CEOs, models to help theorise some of the concepts to work from and a clear focus on the importance of content. All of this, makes for an easy read, backed up by data and with practical easy-to-use pieces of advice for leaders.

If you’re working in communications, in any specialism, pick up a copy of the book. It will help you gain clarity around how to engage your leaders in the topic and help you help them understand it doesn’t need to be feared – and should be embraced.

Grab your copy here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Get-Social-Strategy-Tactics-Leaders/dp/0749482559

The art of science and engagement in internal communication

We know that internal communicators are struggling to influence at the top, finding digital adoption hard across organisations and working with limited budgets. Some of the conversation we need to have are increasingly challenging and opinion or experience might not be enough to win your case. Last week, at the CIPR Northern Conference in Newcastle, I hosted a workshop talking about neuroscience and how the world of work might have evolved, but our brains have not.

The basics
Our brains have one core purpose – to survive. To survive they need two key things; to seek out rewards and to avoid threats. The rewards will be things like food and shelter and the threats will be the sabre-tooth tiger coming to kill you. The threat response in our brains is much stronger than rewards so we will always lean to that response – you can survive without food/shelter/water for a while, but you can’t survive the tiger killing you!

Our brains are constantly trying to predict to keep us out of harms way and when it comes to making decisions, 86% of them are based on feelings. This is important to understand because clarification and ambiguity play a big role in how we feel and are often some of our biggest challenges as communicators.

Dealing with ambiguity and the pace of change
We continually try to predict so when we don’t understand something, or we are left in the dark, our threat response is heightened. Our brains cannot deal with the speed and quantity of change we see today. The level of ambiguity that comes with this means we worry and we think about the adverse possibilities – our threat response.

Our reward state is not only triggered by those basic elements, it can also be triggered by information. Research shows that we are more comfortable with information that provides certainty regardless of whether that is good or bad. Think about waiting for test results – the unknown is much worse than when you have the answer.

The generational divide
I’m a big Simon Sinek fan and during the session I referenced both his golden circle TED talk and his interview about millennials. On researching this topic again, I came across articles challenging his thinking on millennials and while I struggle with generational theory (my diploma paper was on Gen Z and their communication styles) his insights can all play back to the basics of neuroscience.

He suggests that parenting, technology, impatience and environment all play a role in why millennials struggle in the workplace:

  • The failed parenting strategies that have devalued reward (last place medal, taking part medal)
  • The use of social media and the release of dopamine that happens when someone ‘likes’ a post alongside the danger of technology replacing meaningful social connections
  • Impatience and the immediacy of today – remember Blockbuster when you use to have to wait for something to come out and then post it back through the door – not anymore. You can get it all immediately from your sofa.
  • The work environment is so numbers focussed that we don’t consider people. We don’t consider relationships and culture over or even in line with the commercial elements of success and this is damaging trust.

When you revisit the key points from this interview they link back to neuroscience and how our brains work. The need for social connections, making time for each other, rewards – they all come through when you consider why millennials are struggling in the workplace today.

Data and ambiguity
We know that the brain doesn’t like ambiguity and since the research in 2017 with CIPR Inside I have talked a lot about alignment between the internal communication function and leadership. So how ambiguous are we as internal communicators? Does everyone have a definition of what internal communication is inside their organisation? Does everyone have a plan or a strategy? Research from Gatehouse tells us that only 50% have a plan and only 33% have a strategy. So, without these basics in place, are we allowing ambiguity to rule and therefore debilitating conversations with leaders?

Social connections and the struggle with digital tools
After The Big Yak I blogged about the main themes and how we are forgetting we are human. Our social brain impacts our ability to think and perform and people need to stay focussed and positive to work at their best. Neuroscience shows people have a strong need for social connections – so strong that without them we are in a state of threat. I don’t believe we think about this at work in terms of the culture or relationships that we encourage, or even in the content strategies that we create – how many are focussed on the operational aspect of the organisation?
We believed that digital tools would solve our problems. And while they solve some, they aren’t working quite how we hoped. Gatehouse data tells us that only 35% have an adoption rate of good or excellent and 86% say use is non-existent, embryonic or limited. We are forgetting that people are at the heart and from experience, I can tell you that the investment in digital tools will be completely wasted if you don’t invest in the people and the relationships/culture.

Remember that communication is conversation. Give people a voice, collaborate on the things that matter (not everything, but that’s another blog post) and take away the threat and ambiguity of business today. I hope you can use some of the points in this post/from the workshop to help you have conversations to make a difference in your organisation.

Resources

These are links to the books that I have read over the last six months that all contributed to the session at the conference:

Neuroscience for organisational change

Busy: How to thrive in a world of busy

Deep work: Rules for focussed success in a distracted world

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

Who is the best communicator in your business?

Communication – the key component to getting relationships right – is often taken for granted, yet frequently trips up organisations when it goes wrong. Given the evidence that it is the root cause of so much trouble (large and small), you might assume that most reasonably sized organisations would have an internal communications strategy in place, but if research from CIPR, Gatehouse and VMA Group is to be believed, less than 50% of firms with an internal communications function have developed an active strategic plan.

This article was written in partnership with Neil Tomalin, as we plan to explore the themes below in a workshop on 12 September in London – book your ticket to secure your place!

Getting the basics right
What strikes you as you begin an investigation of this subject is the informality that surrounds it and yet how vital it is in order to be productive. One of the issues is just how you get started and the degree of support that businesses currently provide in deciding, for instance how to communicate internally and by what means? This sounds pretty simple, but what are the rules between using email, one-to-one communications, or meetings to convey a message and get things done? Just one example illustrates the point. It is, according to the latest research, 24 times more likely that you will get a ‘yes’ from a face-to-face meeting, rather than relying on an email or other forms of communication. Is this the root cause of why our diaries are so full?

Here’s one other question – can you name the best communicator in your business and to what extent do their communication skills get recognised and rewarded?

Relationship mapping
It is a funny old word ‘relationships’. It carries with it all sorts of connotations and yet is the lifeblood of how to get things done within a business. Forming effective business relationships is about communicating well. So when it comes to your organisation, think about the relationships that exist between departments, between the leadership team or between groups that need to work together. Explore how they operate and help them understand how to get the most out of their time. Understand when meetings happen, whether any are linked, the process for the meeting and help employees become the gatekeeper of their time.

Get the relationships between your employees right and the efficiencies will follow. But to get there, you have got to talk about it and can you honestly remember the last time you called a meeting or discussed how ‘relationships’ within your business were working? Very often this only happens when things have gone spectacularly wrong – that project has overrun again, or there is an issue with a major supplier. Frequently, a breakdown in communication lies at the heart of the problem.

Yet one source of help is normally very close at hand, borrowing an approach that for many years has been adopted by the sales division – relationship mapping. This process almost always focuses upon external customers by identifying key relationships and then putting together an action plan for winning new business. However, it is as relevant for a more systematic approach focusing upon internal relationships in order to achieve greater business efficiencies and reduce, amongst other things, silo mentality.

It is also about helping to tackle stress and maintaining good mental health. Research commissioned by Mind in 2013 found that work was the most stressful factor in people’s lives with one in three people saying their work life was either very or quite stressful.

Assessing your own style
This can be a very revealing exercise particularly in relation to the number of meetings in your diary. It is best done over a number of weeks to establish trends. The key questions to address are:-
1. How would you describe your own communication style?
2. Who is the gatekeeper of your time?
3. Do you have a sense of how much time you are spending in meetings each week?
4. How effective are the meetings you attend?
5. What is your preferred method of communication?
6. How might this be improved?

Learning through observation
To a large extent there is very little formal training around how you communicate in the workplace. New employees very quickly pick up upon hierarchy and the ‘norms’ that exist. They will observe if there is a casual meeting environment, or if it is more formal and will adapt their working style from what they see.

Attending your first meeting as a new employee provides a wealth of information. How does it feel? Do you get the sense that everyone is relaxed and happy to speak up? Are questions welcomed and clear answers given? In his latest research Neil Tomalin argues that this is not always the case. That attendees, rather than ‘being themselves’, adopt various different personas that can undermine the purpose of meetings and frustrate their effectiveness. Partly this role playing is influenced by the way in which the organisation does business, the degree of hierarchy etc. But, it is also impacted by the sheer volume of meetings that some people attend – put frankly – they simply have meeting fatigue!

Meetings aside, the point is that in every organisation there will be an optimum way of communicating and whilst in many organisations this will evolve organically and work well, this does not apply in every case, or enable individual employees to appreciate what works best for their own personal style.

Internal Communications – perfectly placed
If the organisation you work for has the resource to have an internal communications function, there is evidence to suggest that these internal resources are not being fully utilised (CIPR). When it comes to internal communication, business leaders are still unsure about the role it can play inside an organisation, but professional communicators exist and they are able to help other professionals, leaders and line managers form superior relationships, thus enabling the entire organisation to function better.

This is all the more surprising when you consider what, according to Jenni Field, the definition of internal communication includes:- ‘Everything that gets said and shared inside an organisation. As a function its role is to curate, enable and advise on best practise for organisations to communicate effectively, efficiently and in an engaging way.’

So ‘professional communicators’ do exist. How would you measure up if you met one?
Jenni Field and Neil Tomalin will be jointly hosting a communications workshop exploring the themes in this article on 12 September. To secure a place please contact either of us.

From informing to engaging: the role of IC in driving engaging and authentic leadership communications

This morning CIPR Inside and Luminous hosted an Ask the Guru event all about the shift from informing to engaging audiences inside organisations.

As the Chair of CIPR Inside I was there to open the event and facilitate any questions. The event was designed to explore the role of internal communication in driving engaging and authentic leadership communication. With guest speaker Graham Cox, Director of Learning and Development at Boundaries Edge and Mark Litchfield, Executive Creative Director at Luminous they took us on a journey of authenticity, decision making, perception, creativity and measurement.

Understanding how we make decisions

As we set the scene to understand the role of authenticity it was helpful to better understand how we make decisions and where the logic and emotion come in. I’m already a big fan of Simon Sinek and his golden circle theory so it was great to kick off with a reminder about the mammalian brain (feelings) and neocortex (logic) and how 86% of decisions are based on feelings.

What was equally interesting was the fact that as we evolve we should become more logical in our decision-making but with the introduction of AI the need for us to make logical decisions is diminishing.

The six rules of perception

  1. Initial impression resists change, and perception resets every 10/15 seconds
  2. We have confirmation bias, we self-validate – if there is more investment the individual is less likely to change their mind
  3. We cannot hold two precepts in the mind at one time
  4. Perception is directly related to context, so we have to remind people about context all the time. This is linked to the fact that we don’t know how to calculate value
  5. We perceive losses three times more that we do gains. It is this focus on losses and therefore fear of them that leads us to stay in jobs we don’t enjoy or relationships that don’t work
  6. People perceive the past, present and future – and different groups of people will have a tendency to focus on one element more than the other

Engage audiences through creativity and measure how you do it

  • To help with creativity look around you. Benchmark with peers and be inspired by things outside of your everyday
  • Consistency is important
  • Create a central bank of assets to support both the consistency and to help with efficiencies in the team
  • Create a two-way conversation with relevance and measurement; define the metrics upfront, be clear about the audience and who to target, and get qualitative and quantitative feedback

As we finished the morning I shared the Making it Count research with the attendees as this is all about understanding the value and effectiveness of internal communication – and if we find it difficult to calculate value and our perception is directly related to context, I hope this helps us move forwards into more engaging conversations.

Why internal communication is the key to brand authenticity

This morning I attended a breakfast event hosted by VMA Group on the topic of authenticity. The session was led by Matt Hampshire from MK and he was supported by Ed Austin from Wagamama and together they took us through five rules for authenticity.

During the hour they took us through examples from Wagamama as well as some from other organisations – some who get it right and some who get it wrong. As someone who has spent most of their internal communications career working with employees who are predominantly offline it was great to hear a clear message about customer service and organisational purpose – so here are the five rules and how internal communicators can play a role in brand authenticity:

  1. Know who you are
    Looking back to a 1971 Coca-Cola advert and comparing it to a 2017 Pepsi advert reminds us all to stay true to who we are and not jump on a bandwagon. The backlash to Pepsi was huge with an estimated loss of $40m and an advert pulled after huge criticism all over the world.  The identity of the organisation can come from iconic leaders – Steve Jobs and Anita Roddick were just two examples shared – but having a strong purpose and a clear understanding of what your organisation is about will allow you to demonstrate who you are through good communication.
  2. Embrace the truth (even when it is uncomfortable)
    Last year someone shared a photo of a poster in a Wagamama restaurant that clearly told employees they would be disciplined if they called in sick. The first thing Wagamama’s did was talk to their employees – using all their channels they quickly communicated to all employees that this was in fact not the case. It was important for them to keep the conversation going and explain the truth behind the headlines.
  3. What you do is more important than what you say
    Quite often the conversations we have inside organisations will be around values and how we can put a poster on a wall to share them so that people know what they are. Sadly, this rarely works simply because what you do is more important than what you say. If one of your values is respect but it is accepted that people are late for meetings or on their phone during meetings then this doesn’t match. For many, the focus is on the profit and company results and this can lead to behaviour that might go against how we want to be perceived – as Ed said, “If you focus too much on the numbers, you lose focus on the service. Sales will follow if the service is there.”
  4. Start with the right people
    If 72% of people are judged on their CV alone then how can we be sure we are hiring the right people? When we think about employee engagement and employee experience, we need to start at the beginning. The whole employee journey needs to be considered to make sure that the people we train and invest in are committed to the organisation. The example about Zappos giving people £2,000 to not take a job was an interesting example to show how some companies ensure they only hire people who really want to be there.
  5. It’s not about you, it’s about them
    I have spent many meetings discussing this with leadership teams – explaining that they aren’t the audience for some of these messages. The example from Wagamama about the introduction of their Vegan menu was founded on co-creation. Inviting employees who choose a vegan diet to meet with the Executive Chef and discuss the menu, taste it and get involved in what good service looks like for them was fundamental to the roll out of the new dishes. As he said “it’s not about jumping on a bandwagon, it’s about embracing it”

At the end of the session there were some questions about corporate reputation, downloading apps to phones and how to engage cynical employees – all these questions were from different industries and they highlighted the different challenges we can all face in the different cultures we work in. The solution? Come back to these five rules and think about how to apply them in your business, they are core  principles and as a guide, they should work for everyone.