Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Building employee trust requires honesty — and proactive communication

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, this would be when they themselves decide it’s time for a change. But unless they’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, they recognize that sometimes companies have to lay people off, eliminate positions or somehow reduce head count.

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 intranet page for submitting questions or employee Q&A in town hall meetings or some venue for your people to ask management about the tough issues. That gives the company a chance to respond to the concerns that you have to accept are swirling around the workplace. The other side of that coin is that employees need the information they need to make their own decisions –even if that means their decision will be to leave the company. Although by answering their questions, you make it less likely that they’ll feel in a panic to jump ship. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as employees imagine it to be.

5. Share the management vision for the future. Most corporate management teams believe they’re doing this all the time, and it’s true that the people closest to them are familiar with the vision. But when we speak to the rank and file, there is most often a disconnect and the further away an employee is from the top, the less confident they are that the company leadership has a plan. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most effective is a management blog, which we at Tribe liken to “walking the halls, electronically.” A employee blog allows a CEO to communicate one on one with the entire workplace, and to reinforce the vision over and over, and to discuss a range of aspects of that vision.

Interested in communicating proactively and honestly about an upcoming change? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Prepare for Crises By Communicating Ahead of Time

hiresCrises will happen. Most companies have a plan in place for communicating with the media, customers and the outside world, but what about inside the walls of the company?

Employees are a critical audience, even more so in times of crisis. Not only will the crisis likely impact them personally, but they will also become unofficial spokespeople for the company, whether you like it or not.

Prior planning is also no substitute for building a foundation of trust before you need it. If in the regular course of business, you can establish a consistent history of honest communication that treats employees with respect, then you’ll be way ahead of any potential crisis. That equity of trust can reduce stress throughout the ranks in a crisis, as well as help employees feel they’re being kept in the loop as usual.

At Tribe, we advise clients to establish a practice of having executive leadership regularly share company news with employees. Cascading news through managers is fine for everyday, operational news, but it’s important to have some communication directly from the C-level to the frontline.

We’re not talking about giving employees the secret formula for Coke. Have execs share major developments in the company, as well as cultural communications regarding the mission, vision and values. Get employees accustomed to hearing from the big cheese, before there’s some crisis to communicate.

Perhaps ironically, sharing bad news is even better in terms of building employee trust. If earnings are down, if a major customer is lost, or if you experience some other blow to business, resist the urge to remain silent. Develop the habit of sharing both the highs and the lows with employees; then they’ll know they can trust the company to give it to them straight, no matter what.

Interested in improving your executive communications with employees? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

The horizontal silo: When leadership is just talking to themselves

Sometimes the top leadership of a company can be something of a closed system. The C-level and management a layer below tend to exsit in a horizontal silo that separates them from the rest of the company. Without a strong effort to create channels of communication between top management and rank-and-file employees, it doesn’t happen naturally.

Leadership often thinks employees know things they don’t. Important things for engagement and alignment, like their vision for the company, their strategic plans for growth, the values they want the company to use in doing business.

Towards the end of the Recession, we did some research on this topic with a limited sample of four or five large companies. First we spoke with leadership about their plans for handling the economic downturn and coming out stronger on the other end of it.

Without a single exception, leadership from every company said they had a clear vision. When we asked if they believed the employees were aware of and understood this vision, they said, yes, absolutely, we talk about it all the time.

Then we asked the same two questions of employees at each of those companies. What we heard from most of them were comments like: “I don’t think they have any idea how to get us through this;” “There’s no plan, not that I know of;” and “I don’t thing there’s a vision and it scares me.”

Why would leadership think employees know these things when they clearly do not? It’s because they themselves hear about the vision every day. They’re all sitting in the same meetings, seeing the same Powerpoints and having the same discussions. They know the vision, and they know how their department or division of the company is expected to contributes to that vision.

 In short, they’re talking to themselves. What’s needed is a strategic approach to communicating top management’s strategic direction and vision to people at all levels of the company.

They’re also not hearing the views of employees outside the C-Suite. If there’s little to no communciation direct from leadership to employees, then there’s  probably not an established two-way communciation channel either. So corporate management is missing out on all that employees could tell them. From suggestions and innovations to complaints and concerns. Both are useful for improving the company in a myriad of ways large and small.

Interested in establishing communication channels between your C-level and the rest of the company? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

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.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Ghost blogging is dead: Three channels for more authentic leadership communications

Most employees assume CEOs don’t write their own blogs. And in most companies, they’re right. The blogs posted under the names of the top executives have usually been ghost written by someone several rungs below and edited by one or two others before the so-called author ever sees the piece. The messages are carefully crafted, but often very lengthy and not authentic in the least.

That’s because most CEOs don’t have time to blog. Or because none of their trusted advisors has suggested the importance of them taking a few minutes to dash off a few paragraphs once in a while. Even the occasional tweet from the big cheese might be preferable to a highly produced essay-length post that is clearly ghost written.

Employees want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. Tribe’s national research indicates that employees of large companies prefer to learn about two topics in particular – vision and change – directly from their company leadership.

So what’s an internal communications department to do? Here are three suggestions for leadership communications that are more authentic –and require a limited time commitment from the execs.

1. Make it a Q&A piece or feature article: You don’t have to speak in the CEO’s voice to share his or her views. Rather than pretend the executive is doing the writing, let the internal author come out from behind the curtain. Ask three or four questions about a topic and let the executive ramble. Then edit a concise response from the words that actually came out of his or her mouth. You can also use the same 15-minute interview to write a feature article for the intranet or company magazine.

2. Make it a video: Some people are very comfortable talking to camera. As in the Q&A interview described above, let the executive ramble and then edit some of the nicest pieces together for a one to three-minute video. Let them know it doesn’t matter if they mess up and need to say something over again, because you’ll only include the best parts in the final edit. You might get several short videos out of one 3o- or 45-minute on-camera interview.

One strength of this format is that video can humanize executive leadership. Employees not only get to see their faces; they hear their voices and watch their body language, all of which helps them feel like they know them personally. And that builds trust in leadership.

3. Try a podcast: Podcasts are back. Or if you never noticed them before, they’re here. Podcasts on iTunes have topped a billion subscribers. Almost 40 million Americans say they’ve listened to a podcast in the past 30 days.

Plus, executives don’t need to worry how their hair looks. It can be a lot less stressful for many people to be recorded than videotaped. If they stumble over their words, they can try it again as many times as they want. Remind them that the edit will use only the most polished bits. And like the video suggestion above, one interview can be edited into several podcasts.

Interested in helping your leadership communications be more authentic? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Think about employee communications in a crisis well before a crisis occurs

Crises will happen. Most companies have a plan in place for communicating with the media, customers and the outside world, but what about inside the walls of the company?

Employees are a critical audience, even more so in times of crisis. Not only will the crisis likely impact them personally, but they will also become unofficial spokespeople for the company, whether you like it or not.

Prior planning is also no substitute for building a foundation of trust before you need it. If in the regular course of business, you can establish a consistent history of honest communication that treats employees with respect, then you’ll be way ahead of any potential crisis. That equity of trust can reduce stress throughout the ranks in a crisis, as well as help employees feel they’re being kept in the loop as usual.

At Tribe, we advise clients to establish a practice of having executive leadership regularly share company news with employees. Cascading news through managers is fine for everyday, operational news, but it’s important to have some communication directly from the C-level to the frontline.

We’re not talking about giving employees the secret formula for Coke. Have execs share major developments in the company, as well as cultural communications regarding the mission, vision and values. Get employees accustomed to hearing from the big cheese, before there’s some crisis to communicate.

Perhaps ironically, sharing bad news is even better in terms of building employee trust. If earnings are down, if a major customer is lost, or if you experience some other blow to business, resist the urge to remain silent. Develop the habit of sharing both the highs and the lows with employees; then they’ll know they can trust the company to give it to them straight, no matter what.

Interested in improving your executive communications with employees? Tribe can help.