Why internal communicators need to say 'no' to leaders
Business leaders are the face of the company, but do they always know what’s best for their employees? Leaders that fail to understand the evolving employee-employer dynamic risk alienating employees at a time when engagement is front of mind. Here’s how internal communicators can play a pivotal role in coaching leaders through the next phase of work: when to say no, and how to do it effectively.
From mouthpiece to strategic advisor: the new role of internal comms
The last years have been a period of intense re-evaluation when comes to where, when, how, and why we work. Out of this, a new employee-employer dynamic has emerged. Today workers are prioritizing purpose and well-being over pay. No longer does a ‘do it because I told you so’ approach work; employees have the power to say ‘no, thanks, I’ll go somewhere else,’ or worse, ‘no thanks, I’ll stay and do as little as possible.’
For leaders, this power shift is unnerving. Many rose the ranks in a working environment that would today be considered antiquated at best and inhumane at worst. And while most know that times have changed, few know exactly what employees really need from them to be engaged at work. Fortunately, internal communicators are perfectly placed to educate them.
Leaders have the power to set the tone for workforce culture. But with great power, comes great responsibility. A leader fails to understand the mood of the workforce can make decisions the derail engagement overnight. As the saying goes, little ripples create big waves, so it’s up to internal communicators to step into the role of guardians of employee engagement and support leaders to adapt to a new environment.
As marketing guru Seth Godin recently said in his Unite 22 keynote:
"You are the soft tissue between what the managers at executive level want to say and what all the people in the organization are hearing. Very few people in the organization have as much leverage to change things as you do."
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Leaders that don’t listen, fail
The recent backlash of Apple’s return to work strategy is a classic example of how leaders that don’t listen, fail. In Apple’s case, announcing a sweeping return-to-office strategy left many employees feeling unheard and unhappy. Today we know that 49% of professionals say they would turn down a job offer if the company mandated that they go into the office full-time, but back then, it was a guessing game. And because leaders made a best guess that failed to account for the mood of the workforce, a scandal ensued.
To prevent these kinds of panic-inducing scenarios, internal communicators have a role to play. Leaders need a strategic partner to advise on what employees need and how best to communicate with them, particularly in times of significant change. It’s not going to be easy - we’re all navigating unchartered waters – but there are some big no-no’s we can start with. So, let’s look at some of the common mistakes leaders are making and how you can put a stop to them.
5 mistakes leaders make and how you can put a stop to it
#1. Not reading the room
One of the most common causes of employee disengagement is when employees don’t feel listened to. Leaders don’t have time to carefully monitor employee enaggement levels, but internal communicators do. Using a combination of pulse surveys, focus groups, comms performance data and social sentiment analysis, internal communicators should prioritize listening activities that ensure they are abreast of the workforce's mood and have the platform to feed those insights back to leaders.
There will be times when delivering bad news is inevitable, but having an understanding of employees’ mindsets will help you to guide leaders on the best way to message and roll-out new policies to limit backlash.
Consider adding pulse surveys to critical communications that give employees a quick way of letting you know how that information made them feel. When employees have an outlet for their opinions and trust that their voices are being heard, resentment is less likely to build.
#2. Not communicating honestly or regularly enough
Leaders who favor a bunker-style approach – where highly polished communications are distributed through the mouthpiece of internal comms – will need to adapt. Both in terms of attracting new talent and retaining existing talent, visible and articulate leaders are a vital guiding force in today’s unpredictable landscape.
Furthermore, ideas of what constitutes an effective leader are changing. Today, employees appreciate openness and vulnerability over steely superiority. Transparency is key. Leaders aren’t expected to have the answers to everything, but they are expected to be present and vocal.
In his recent keynote at Unite 22, entrepreneur and business mogul Steven Bartlett spoke about the power of leadership vulnerability to inspire employees and nurture performant culture:
"Vulnerability is a leadership superpower. We used to think of leaders as being really strong and brave and fearless. And we’ve realized that people relate most to vulnerability and truth."
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In a world where faith in our leaders is more fragile than ever, employees seek meaningful relationships with their enterprise execs that inspire trust. Leaders who are reluctant to communicate with employees directly must be coached on the consequences of sup-par leadership visibility.
#3. Shying away from the camera
Relating to the point above, camera-shy leaders are at a disadvantage. To cultivate the kind of meaningful, trusting relationships employees are seeking to establish with their employers, it’s important for leaders to embrace new formats that facilitate a greater sense of human connection.
Video is fast becoming the go-to format for all types of communications, and leadership comms is one area where video can make a real difference.
There are many ways to go about getting your leaders on video talking directly to employees, but the first hurdle to overcome is convincing leaders that the less polished their communications are, the more approachable they will seem to employees. Leadership vlogs, Q&A sessions, and appearances at company town halls are common methods for promoting leadership visibility. But, for those leaders that remain reluctant to the power of video comms, podcasts present a promising alternative.
#4. Sending out too many all-company updates
On the other side of the coin, there are some leaders who are guilty of over-communicating. It’s widely accepted that the volume of corporate communication has reached saturation. According to Gartner 2022 predictions, 46% of enterprise comms leaders recognize that digital distraction and information overload are the top challenges for their organizations. It’s the internal communicator’s job to find creative ways of managing the challenge and saying ‘no’ to leaders that think every update is worthy of an all-company e-blast.
Dealing with this problem requires a clear internal communications plan that maps out exactly what messages are going to whom and at what frequency. Instead of delivering ad-hoc, reactive updates at the whim of leaders and managers, think about launching regular bulletins that amalgamate mini-updates into a regularly posted cadence of leadership news. This way, employees will come to expect a single, condensed update at regular intervals, driving up engagement and limiting distractions. Another option to consider is the creation of a leadership hub on your intranet or employee experience platform – a place for all leadership information and updates that can be checked at employees’ convenience.
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#5. Staying silent on social issues
CEOs have different opinions on whether or not they should discuss social and political issues publicly; the Fortune 500 CEOs 2021 are split 50/50 on the debate. But if you ask employees, 60% expect CEOs to speak publicly about controversial social and political opinions, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022. Furthermore, 52% are prepared to quit if they feel their employer doesn’t align with their values and support the issues they care about.
This change in attitude represents one of the most seismic shifts in employee expectations of leaders. While it might be one of your more difficult battlegrounds when it comes to activating a new leadership mindset, it’s a critical one to discuss.
The good news is the data is there to help you drive your point home. If your leaders feel uneasy about tackling big topics, start by presenting the research on why they should. You can also take a look at the types of issues that employees feel their leaders should be speaking out on – comfort can be found in the fact that politics is firmly off the table.
Internal communicators have the tools to make change happen
Ultimately, you can’t be responsible for the way leaders communicate, but you can provide the advice and guidance to steer them in the right direction. Using internal employee data and insights from how employees are engaging with different sections of your intranet can give you a jumping-off point and evidence to explain to your leaders what their employees want and need.