they get a question leading to an elephant in the room. A certain body
language. A tone of voice. If you watch closely, that expression and the follow-on reaction looks
and sounds roughly like this: 1. The body freezes, particularly shoulders and head. 2. The eyeballs dart sideways or down. 3. There is a pause as the person being questioned buys time to decide
how to answer and to settle themselves down to look comfortable again. 4. There is a comment about how the questioner is "blunt" (or perhaps
a laugh, as if to say, "very good," or the opposite, anger at their
chutzpah). 5. There is an answer that is either honest (usually coupled with a
laugh and/or compliment at the acuity of the question) or evasive
(usually coupled with "I need to find out more information," or "That
is not my department," or you get a vague answer, or part of an
answer), or misleading, or a lie. If you are a communicator it is your job to get to the truth. Usually
when there is little information available, or you have to piece
together bits of information from here and there. A critical part of
gathering that information is asking questions, and not in a slavishly
flattering way but in a way that gets you to an answer. Inevitably questions lead to elephants. So you have to know what to
do. How to recognize them, how to handle them, and most importantly
that you have choices. Typically communicators have the following kinds of reactions to the
elephant, once they discover it: 1. Glee - as in "gotcha," a combination of relief at having gotten
somewhere; satisfaction that they were asking the right questions;
knowing that they are now equipped to move forward with a
communication plan. 2. Dread - as in "oh s**t, now what do I do?" because the elephant is
difficult to deal with. 3. Denial - as in "I don't see any elephants," because they want to
CYA and not have trouble in their lives. None of these emotions are productive. In fact they get in the way. The first one is egotistical - "You see I'm so great!" - and it
distracts you from your focus, which should be on serving the
customer. The second and third go hand in hand - they bias you toward not seeing
the truth. If you don't see the truth you can't communicate, because
people can smell a lie and will immediately disregard what you are
saying. So let's say you've discovered an elephant and conquered your
emotions. What next? The important thing to do is to recognize that you have choices.
Essentially they boil down to: 1. Ignore the elephant - if the timing is bad, if there is a lack of
support for moving forward to confront it, if it wouldn't serve the
customer. 2. Discuss the elephant directly with the customer and explore options
for responding to it. 3. Discuss the elephant, but not with the customer, and decide to work
around it. Every person and every organization has elephants, because life is
messy. Sorry, that's just how it is. Without elephants, you wouldn't need communicators. The important thing for professionals, as we confront these
situations, is not to be surprised by elephants but rather to look at
them as part of the natural habitat. And then to calmly work to
address them - or not. Have a good day everyone, and good luck!
In the hierarchy of corporate talking, internal communication has about the same ring as a colonoscopy.
And it’s pretty similar too. Both are invasive, designed to uncover deadly cancerous growths that can lead to the organism’s (the organization’s) death.
Also, in both cases, knowing that you have a disease can help you get better. But it is also painful to admit you may be sick. And if you do have cancer, the horrible reality is that it may be too late to save your life.
Of course the deepest fear an executive has, in terms of “talking to the people,” is that they’ll learn of things “better left unsaid.” Things that then have to get dealt with, and once we start airing the problems who knows where that will lead.
Usually the attempt to avoid talking about real things involves sharing fluff. Why don’t we change that by changing the name of the field. How about organizational development? Because that gets us closer to what we are really trying to do.
Here is a story to illustrate my point. Let’s call it an anti-case study.
Way back when, in a certain organization, I was one of the people responsible for internal communication. It was my job to manage the employee news magazine. Our team did a lot of work to make it more appealing. One of those things was to make an electronic version of the print edition.
At the time I was infatuated with all things Amazon. As a brand, the revolutionary-ness of it had great appeal to me: They offer things from other vendors! They allow all kinds of ratings of the products! How do they make a dime?
Already in a previous job I had gotten in trouble for using the Amazon paradigm in the thought leadership publication I invented for them. Because I insisted on quoting other consultancies. There were those who thought that doing so would make us lose business. I stubbornly insisted that, just like Amazon, it would show that we were more secure. It was a controversial point of view and not everyone would have it.
In this job I could see that the newsletter would really do nothing online unless it had a value-add. Because people liked the glossy print edition. They could carry it around on travel, show their families what they did, etc. I made sure to blow the pictures up, way up because people really like to see themselves and their colleagues at work. And graphics grab your attention and make you read.
So what did we need with online? During the day people were working and didn’t have time to read this kind of off-hours stuff. So, working with the technical team, I figured out a way to make the online version feature an Amazon-style rating system. It was brilliant, I thought. It would be so engaging for people to rate the articles and so informative for us, to know what content was most valued by the users
My boss was horrified. Ab-so-lute-ly horrified. If she could have strung me up on a pole she would have.
Her worry was, basically, that we would p*** people off. And then we’d be shut down. Because the mission of our group was to “make people feel good” as well as to “provide useful information.”
By looking at the employee magazine as an “internal communications tool,” the rating system was a hard sell, because the word “communications” implies something glossy and appealing. Yet at the same time, the word "internal" implies something messy, complicated, not glossy. Like an internal medical exam.
However, if internal comm. were reframed as “organizational development” (which it really is, or ought to be) then a rating system for articles would make much more sense. Because then it’s about using communication to bring the organization together. Part of working together is airing, and then resolving, conflict productively.
If something we are saying just isn’t appealing to the workforce; if our style of doing business is unproductive; if there are problems lurking beneath the surface that get hidden when executives walk by; we need to know. Otherwise what’s the point of sending out all the happy missives?
Anyone can send an email describing the employee benefits package – that passes for “communication” too.
If we want to see internal communication grow and prosper the way it should as a profession, then perhaps we should give it a better name. Something more in tune with what it’s trying to achieve. To me, the field of OD is more appropriate for sponsoring an evolving conversation – one based on honesty, transparency, mutuality, and trust.
Remember the good old days when it was a parents’ job to keep their emotions to themselves?
Today things have supposedly changed - it’s all about “being real.” But even with all of that, being too honest can puncture a kids’ sense of security and stability.
Though we may seem taller and grayer, adults are basically kids inside. And when we are confronted with the vulnerability of someone we count on to be stable, it scares us and we don’t want to know. Remember that episode, on “Sex and the City,” when Carrie’s beloved mentor at Vogue confronted her with his penchant for cross-dressing?
I was thinking about this while reading an online discussion about one vs. multiple identities: Is it our choice to be different people on different social networks? Or would we prefer to be known as an integrated, multifaceted person by all the people we deal with?
In the discussion it was fairly clear, as I also heard in a real-life forum, that most people want to preserve their distinct identities. They want to be one person at work, another with the family, maybe a third with the college buddies, etc. There are boundaries.
The sociologist who kicked off the discussion with her blog argued that we are always multiple selves and that drawing clear lines between one and the other is healthy.
But I was not so sure. While it is true that we play different roles in different settings, it is also true that living too “divided” a life can lead to not only role conflict but psychological distress.
Indeed, social media has made the “problem” of multiple selves more immediate. Rather than talking in a distinct way to different audiences, frequently we tend to record our utterances electronically as we “perform” in different settings.
So an executive writes a formal email, and then turns around and sends a casual Facebook message or a Tweet. All of this is fine until the outside world is confronted by very disparate communications coming from the same person. It becomes easy, then, to judge them; to conclude that they are a hypocrite.
Thus the Mark Zuckerberg credo that we are always, only, one person.
On the surface, in a social media world, it may seem like our audiences want us to tear down those walls. But in reality, I think, they really don’t want to see all that much. Maybe once in a while, a glimpse. Maybe they want the essential values, the basic voice, to be consistent. But after that, I think, too much information all at once is disconcerting, upsetting, annoying, and even boring – TMI.
Perhaps the issue has to do not with how you portray yourself but with how you think of yourself internally. The more integrated you are – the more you have embraced the various aspects of your identity – the more comfortable you are exercising control over your “portrayal” based on the unique situations you find yourself in.
The way I see it, every actor plays different roles during their careers. Life in social media times is no different. It’s OK to personalize your behavior depending on the forum. You wouldn’t wear flip-flops to a formal dinner, and you wouldn’t wear a suit to McDonald’s. But wherever you go, if you’re out in public, just remember there’s always someone to take a photo for Facebook.