What makes you roll your eyes?
In late 2021, after 18-months of grinding through the pandemic, volatile job markets, skyrocketing housing, overwhelmed health care systems, and crazy parents with no-kids-in-the-district screaming school board meetings, the CEO of Better.com casually fired 900 employees on Zoom then followed this act by labeling the fired employees as lazy thieves (Mathews, 2021).
In intro communication courses, we teach students the importance of self and perception. The better you understand who you are, the better you understand your reactions to life. And perception, which is the awareness that things that impact you in one way may impact others in another way, prepares you to understand context better. There are several reasons these are essential to communication, but one critical ingredient is authenticity. How do communicators at Better.com remain true to themselves and their values, recognize the context of what had happened, and yet remain authentic? Consider the challenge of producing that first company-wide newsletter after the mass firing and insults. To inform, assure, motivate, or empower employees after this incident, how do they balance truth with messaging from leadership?
While Better.com's example is grand, cringey, and news-worthy, this happens every day at many organizations. For example, many institutions put out diversity statements, implement employee training, and post jobs that highlight their commitment to inclusion. Yet, the website's leadership page and executive town hall Zooms look like a Mormon tabernacle from 1955. How do Internal Communicators (ICs) speak authentically?
Another common example, over the past year, countless companies sent surveys asking for employee feedback regarding remote work. The results, often in lopsided pie charts, show that the majority prefer to remain remote. How do communicators authentically speak to employees when the organizations had no intention of offering remote work? We hear you, and we listened! We will have a new foosball table by the time you return to the office!
If I told you that Bruno Mars could whip Mike Tyson, you’d roll your eyes. If an organization shouts to the world that their company is diversity-focused, and at the same time, they fire their newly hired DEI Officer (Bunn, 2021), the employees, candidates, prospects, and stakeholders will roll their eyes. This gesture is more than a visible and fleeting shrug of the shoulders; it’s a debit on the organization's credibility. Enough shrugs and enough eye-rolls, and your employees lose respect, become disengaged, and production, retention, and moral decline. Much research has defined the relationship between worker satisfaction and production increases. Extensive research by Oxford University's Saïd Business School, in collaboration with British multinational telecoms firm BT, has found that workers are 13% more productive when happy (Happy Workers Are 13% More Productive | University of Oxford, 2019).
Inauthentic messaging taints the messenger—every message the internal communication department sends filters through this eye-roll test. Every newsletter, rah-rah email, new direction announcement, every new technology, and every new executive hire will be met with eye-rolls.
By being the messenger, ICs adopt some ownership of the message, therefore, take a leadership position. Perception is reality, and the messenger can’t escape the perception that the news is inherently connected to them and coming from them. The communication department can’t share a message appended with a note stating they may or may not agree with the content. Communicators must be authentic. Research indicates that authentic leadership plays a critical role in nurturing and cultivating quality employee–organization relationships (Men & Stacks, 2014). The answer isn't to craft a message that avoids eye-rolls. The answer is to acknowledge them, examine their reasons, and address them head-on. ICs need to message truth both up and down.
Fight for authenticity. Before your next announcement, question the likelihood of an eye roll.
Bunn, C. (2021, November 2). A Black chief diversity officer lost a job offer after flagging racial bias. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/black-chief-diversity-officer-lost-job-offer-flagging-racial-bias-rcna4038