What Can Communications Professionals Do If Their Company Isn’t Already a “Chill Place?”

iStock_000088161219_skate“If your company  is a chill place, you won’t have to talk about it. It will be obvious the minute you walk in the door.” Could not agree more. The above is from Liz Ryan, author of a fantastic Forbes blog  titled “Please God, Can We Stop Talking About ‘Core Values?'”

“A lot of corporate and institutional weenies love to talk about Core Values, as though their organization’s values were somehow fundamentally different from every other organization’s values.” That’s another scathing but awesome line from her blog.

And this, perhaps, is my favorite bit: “I assume you lead your company with a human voice and choose trust over fear at every opportunity. If you do those things, you don’t need to stop and plumb the depths of your Core Values.” All of the above and more from her post is excellent advice for the CEO and his or her leadership team.

But what if you’re charged with communicating culture to employees in a company that isn’t totally chill? How can you help shift the culture towards what Ryan calls a “human place.”

The best thing you can do is to lead from where you are. Start your communications strategies from a place of respect for employees. Be the voice in the meeting that speaks up for being  honest with employees, even when it’s difficult. Put communication channels in place that give employees a way to share questions, concerns and comments — and then create systems for giving those employees a response. Advise your leadership to take the high road, even when that’s not what they want to hear.

While this is decidedly more difficult than working with a company that already has an enviable culture, it may have a more powerful impact on the world. As the bumper sticker version of Ghandi’s words says, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Want a partner in helping to shift the culture at your company? Tribe can help.


Do discovery to determine the gap

Do you know the gap between what you want employees to know and feel and what they actually think and feel right now? As you’re developing a communications strategy for any major initiative, whether the topic to be communicated is a major change or the company vision or anything else, you need to understand their current point of view.

The typical engagement survey may not tell you how far away your current reality is from your desired reality. To understand that, you need to ask questions specific to the issue at hand, and to listen for the nuances of what employees are really saying.  For that you need more than quantifiable data. You need qualitative conversations.

Time consuming though it may be, focus groups and personal interviews can help you get at the back story. For instance, we once worked with a company that had recently hired a very charismatic and energizing CEO. He was fantastic, and all the survey data indicated that employees’ opinions of him were very high.

But over the course of a handful of focus groups with employees in a wide range of functions, seniority and geography, an interesting theme emerged. Yes, employees thought the new CEO was awesome and they supported the new vision he brought to the organization. Although there also seemed to be an undercurrent of stress, not about the changes he was making, but about their own workloads.

This seemed curious, especially since there had been no layoffs associated with the new CEOs tenure. People still had largely the same job responsibilities they had under the former CEO.

As we invited employees to speak to this undercurrent of stress we had noticed, we learned something we would never have uncovered through survey questions. For one thing, we wouldn’t have known to ask about it.

Employees were stressed because they couldn’t keep up with the CEO. This was a man who seemed to need little sleep, who was at work early and stayed late, who could move from town hall to public appearance to site visits without ever seeming to tire. Although he had no expectation of employees keeping the same kind of schedules, they assumed he did.

That’s something we could address in the communications strategy. It revealed the gap between what leadership wanted employees to think and feel and what they really were thinking and feeling. Knowledge of that gap provided an important perspective for developing communications related to the culture the new CEO wanted to create.

Interested in learning more about your communications gaps? Tribe can help.

The most common mistakes in change management communications

What’s the biggest mistake you could possibly make in communicating change?  The absolute worst would be to tell employees something that would make them feel better, but might not be true. For instance, saying there will be no layoffs with an impending merger, before management knows for certain that there won’t be. In the midst of change, there are many moving parts, and some early assumptions may be revised as more details and numbers are fleshed out.

On the other hand, it’s also a  mistake is to say nothing because the details haven’t yet been finalized. Employees can accept the fact that you can’t tell them everything right now. What causes them more stress is the sneaking suspicion that something’s afoot and management isn’t telling them anything. We advise clients that it’s perfectly fine to say, “We don’t know yet, but we’ll tell you when we do,” or “We can’t share that information, but what I can tell you is such and such.” In any case, you certainly want to avoid having your employees hear the news from someone outside the company, whether it’s a neighbor who’s related to top management or the business section of the newspaper.

You can also minimize stress for employees by acknowledging what we call the Two Big Fears. In the face of any major change in the workplace, employees worry about two major questions: “Will I lose my job?” If the answer to that is no, then the next concern is “Will this make my job more difficult?” Acknowledging those two issues can take some of the heat off them.

It’s human nature to imagine the worst. So in the absence of communication regarding the change, employees’ imaginations will fill in the gaps and rumours will begin seeping through your organization. Setting realistic expectations can be a relief. Most people would rather know what to expect, even if it’s not good news, than to be left in the dark.

The most important key to successfully communicating change is to begin with a foundation of respect for the employees. That means treating employees like the intelligent adults they are, as well as putting yourself in their shoes. We often talk about the Golden Rule of Change: If you were an employee impacted by this change, how would you want to be treated?

Interested in communicating change more effectively at your company? Tribe can help.

Boosting attendance for the leadership’s all-company conference calls

I told this woman I was going to steal her idea — and now I’d like to share it with you. I spoke last week to Atlanta’s IABC on the topic of the Horizontal Silos: How to Bridge the Disconnect Between the C-Suite and the Rest of the Company. During the Q&A that followed, she stood up and offered this suggestion, which I think ranks right up there in the category of best practices.

The company she worked for was struggling through an acquisition with the customary discomforts associated with combining two cultures. To help unite the combined workforce and engage employees in the vision moving forward, the CEO gave regular conference calls to which employees of both legacy companies were invited.

Engagement in (and attendence of) these calls soared when the CEO began ending each call with a joke. Apparently, the first time the joke was his own.

Then employees starting suggesting jokes for him. Each week, people from both former companies would hang on until the end of the conference call, just to hear the joke.

If I have the story right, he would identify the contributor and their legacy company. That would give employees from both camps an opportunity to relate to each other as humans, and to feel a connection that was a little more personal, and more fun, than just work.

Then the communications department made the competition more interesting by awarding restaurant gift cards for the best jokes. That drove even more participation, of course.

Pretty brilliant. And the best part is that it happened organically at first, as one of the first collaborative efforts of the post-acquisition combined workforces.

Want more internal communications ideas? Tribe can help.



TRIBE TRIVIA: Non-Desk Employees and Corporate Communications

Question:  Do non-desk employees feel that corporate is keeping them in the loop?

Answer: About 20 percent feel that the company shares only good news with them, according to Tribe’s national research with non-desk employees. Almost 40 percent indicated they “take all corporate communications with a grain of salt.

For more information about this study, see Tribe’s white papers and other resources on the expertise page of tribeinc.com, or shoot me an email.


Boost trust in top management by communicating change honestly

Here’s the thing: trust is not about guaranteeing employees that nothing bad will ever happen. If building trust requires a guarantee of anything, it’s that the company will tell employees what’s really going on, even if it’s bad.

Employees are smart enough to realize that no company can promise lifetime employment anymore. Most employees don’t even want lifetime employment. They want interesting, challenging work, and in an ideal scenario, work that they find personally meaningful.

They start a new job with the expectation that eventually they’ll move on to another company, ideally when they themselves decide it’s time for a change. On the other hand, they recognize that sometimes  companies have to lay people off, eliminate positions or somehow reduce head count. They know that job security is a relative term.

Honesty, then, becomes the real building block of trust. Employees feel trust in their company — and thus do their best work and are most engaged — when they believe management is being honest with them. So how does a company go about doing that?

1. Tell employees about any significant changes in the company — and tell them fast, before the rumor mill and the media get a jump on you. Some CEOs and other leaders delude themselves into thinking that if they don’t say anything, the employees won’t notice that anything is going on. Wrong. Employees know when something is up, and in the absence of management communication, they’ll take their information wherever they can get it, often from each other.

2. Tell the truth, even when it’s bad news. Particularly when it’s bad news. If employees know that the company will be straight with them in communicating negative developments, then they tend not to worry so much. Ironically, sharing bad news makes employees feel more comfortable instead of less so.

3. Give employees credit for being smart enough to know business includes both ups and downs. Most people have experienced plenty of highs and lows in their own lives, and they have an understanding that things move in cycles. Just because the business is down today, doesn’t mean it won’t be up tomorrow.

4. Make room for employees to ask questions. You have to make this honest communication a two-way street. Provide an online forum or town  hall meetings or some venue for your people to ask management the hard questions. That gives the company a chance to respond to the issues that you have to accept are swirling around the workplace.

5. Share the management vision for the future. Most corporate management teams believe they’re doing this all the time. It’s true that the people closest to them are usually familiar with the vision. But the further away an employee is from the top, the less likely they are to know anything at all about the vision for the organization. Being aware of leadership’s vision can help anchor employees drowning in a sea of change.

Interested in communicating change in a way that can build trust? Tribe can help.

Communicating your vision to employees

True success as a company comes when you can align your employees with your vision. When employees feel connected to the direction of your company, they become ambassadors. They better understand their role in the structure of the company, and the merits of large company shifts. 

Employees need a common goal. When everyone is engaged and working in the same direction, the company works smarter and better. Your vision is that goal, that direction, and it’s up to you to communicate it to employees and continue those communications as the company that evolves.

Here are four ways that Tribe recommends sharing your vision with your company:

1) A vision book to put a stake in the ground. Tribe has created vision books as large as a paperback novel and as small as a passport. The goal of such a publication is to clearly articulate the vision, often along with the values that support that vision. We recommend vision books at the launch of a major cultural transformation or immediately following a large-scale change, such as a major acquisition or a new CEO.

2) Leadership communications to make it relevant. Before employees can walk the walk, they need to hear their top management talk the talk. In town halls and presentations, in blogs and intranet articles, the vision can anchor executive announcements of change, progress, challenges and successes. When those in the C-suite can tie difficult decisions back to the vision, it helps increase employee confidence in the company and trust in its management.

3) Manager communications to relate the vision to day-to-day work. Although leadership communication is important to set the bar for the vision, employees will look to their direct managers to understand how the vision impacts their individual jobs. Sometimes managers need help in knowing how to communicate that. Tools like discussion guides, talking points and other communication materials can make it easier for them to work vision into the conversation.

4) A culture magazine to share progress toward that vision. If the vision book puts the stake in the ground, a digital or print culture magazine sustains the relevance of the vision. Keep vision top of mind with articles on teams that have achieved important milestones or individuals that have contributed in some significant way to the company’s ability to realize that vision. Employees appreciate reading about the roles coworkers are playing in achieving the vision, whether those coworkers are in positions like to their own, or in completely different functional silos

The power of a CEO video: Authentic communication employees crave.

In Tribe’s national research, employees have told us there are two topics they want to hear directly from the CEO. Although they’re comfortable with communications being cascaded through their managers for day-to-day information, when the topic is change management or company vision, they prefer to hear it first from the big cheese.

Our research also tells us employees are hungry for face-to-face interaction, and for human connection to their company leadership. The majority of employees will never bump into their CEO on the elevator or at the water cooler. Yet they want to put a face to the name, and even more than that, to feel like they know the CEO as a person and not just a title.

Blogs are not the answer. Employees know the CEO isn’t the one writing those things. Unless you have one of the rare CEOs who does actually pen his or her own blog posts, employees assume someone on the internal communications team ghostwrites them.

Employees tell us over and over again that they want authentic communication. If you’re faced with communicating a major change in the company, or with launching a new cultural initiative involving vision, purpose or values, short CEO videos can be a powerful tool.

Short is important. Under 60 seconds is good; anything solidly under two minutes is probably fine. But anything much longer and your chances of employees actually watching the video go down dramatically.

If it can’t be communicated in 60 seconds, try a series. Break your messaging up into several focused points, and address just one point in each video.

High production values can work against you here. You want human and real, not slick and highly produced. You might want something more professional than an iPhone for shooting, but don’t bring in a huge camera crew. When you put someone in front of lots of lights and cameras, they tend to get more nervous and awkward.

Use talking points instead of a script. The goal is for the video to feel as much as possible like the CEO is talking to the viewer, person to person. Once you put a script in front of someone, they become an actor, and usually not a good one.

You can fix it in post. There’s a reason that phrase is a cliché. Assure the CEO that it’s fine to mess up and start over, as many times as needed. In the edit, you’ll use the best stuff and the goof-up takes will never see the light of day.

What if your CEO just hates being on camera? Tremendous amounts of content are consumed via podcast now, and they’re a good option for authentic leadership communication. Although when first introduced years ago, podcasts didn’t gain much traction, they’ve recently become a highly popular medium. A CEO podcast could be as personable and engaging as an NPR interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Interested in creating authentic CEO videos? Tribe can help.


Four steps to creating a cultural shift in your company

Let’s say your CEO decides the company needs a cultural shift. When the current culture isn’t creating the right results; or when the company acquires other companies; or when leadership develops a new vision for the company’s business goals; the existing culture might need to evolve to support the success of those changes.

Here are four elements of making that shift a reality:

  1. Define the desired culture: The first step is to develop the framework for where you want the culture to be. What is top leadership’s vision for where the company is going? What are the values that will support reaching that vision?
  1. Know the gap: A crucial step to creating a cultural shift is understanding the gap between the desired culture and where you are now. At Tribe, we do that during the discovery phase of strategic planning, through interviews, focus groups and surveys with employees representing a wide cross-section of functional areas, job level and geography.
  1. Articulate the desired culture: It doesn’t do much good for the C-level to agree on the culture they want if that’s not shared with employees. At the launch of a cultural shift, we often recommend a vision book to put a stake in the ground. Distribution might be timed with an employee event and/or other initiatives to communicate the vision and values.
  1. Help employees see their role in the vision. If the desired culture is customer-centric, for instance, those employees whose jobs aren’t customer-facing might assume it doesn’t apply to them. Communicate how every single person in the organization supports that vision in their day-to-day work. In the customer-centric example, employees in the call center will have an easy time understanding how they serve the customer, but those in other departments, from accounting to IT, might not find it obvious that their work supports internal customers and thus enables those people to serve the company’s customers.
  1. Reward those who demonstrate the desired culture: The goal is for the entire employee cycle to support this cultural shift. It means changing the way the company recruits new employees; onboards new hires; recognizes employees; and rewards performance.

Ultimately, the culture is defined by the qualities that are rewarded. If employees see that raises and promotions are tied to exhibiting the values, behaviors and accomplishments that align with the desired culture, they’ll get on board. If they don’t see that happening, the new culture will be a much tougher sell.

This is the critical follow-through that’s often out of our clients’ hands. No matter how much you communicate the desired culture, the reality of that shift is dependent on operational changes throughout the company.

Interested in creating a cultural shift in your company? Tribe can help.