Inevitable Change vs Reluctant Leadership


A tsunami completes its journey regardless of obstacles in its path. Throughout the U.S., organizations face three industry-altering tsunamis transforming the workplace: remote work, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and staffing. However, the internal communicator’s fundamental hurdle is governing the consequences from leadership that doesn’t accommodate for the power of this inevitable change and the fallout from failure to adapt. A communicators challenge is twofold: craft strategies to address these transformations while keeping the messaging authentic and impactful. Inauthentic messaging derails internal communications. And no level of savviness in crafting employee engagement strategies, internal documentation, or employee messaging can counter inauthentic content. One of the most prominent and timely examples is the disaster created by Better.com CEO Vishal Garg, who fired 900 employees during a short, cruel Zoom meeting that lacked empathy and was followed by a cringe-worthy interview where Vishal disparaged the 900 fired employees by calling them lazy and thieves. How do communicators message, engage, or develop immediacy with their audience after that act? How woefully inauthentic are messages of unity, loyalty, motivation, productivity, or culture building after that Zoom meeting? For the communicator, every message post that Zoom meeting becomes tainted. Now, let’s apply inauthentic messaging to one of the three tsunami issues that are being forced upon us. According to recent research from Morning Consult, 55 percent of workers would consider quitting if forced to return to the office. As of the first week of 2022, only 28 percent of the workforce in the nation’s top ten largest business centers were at their offices (Washington Post and Kastle). Countless organizations have developed internal surveys trying to understand the pulse of workers and their desire to remain remote or return to the office. However, these surveys inevitably result in an overwhelming desire to stay remote. Yet, many leaders shrug and stay their course, forcing a return to the office. As businesses struggle to find normalcy, organizations fumble around to find the right path. Leaders are often reluctant to adopt, accept, or embrace whatever that path may be, leaving Internal Communicators threading the needle between being authentic communicators and educating leadership on which way the wind is blowing. Shortly after the initial COVID wave in 2020, an organization with about 24,000 employees started doing surveys within departments asking employees about returning to the office. As time went on, survey results never changed. Employees overwhelmingly demanded to remain full-time remote with occasional team-building efforts in the office or other physical locations. However, the organization had already decided workers must return in a 3-2 hybrid model, with two days home. The internal communicators are forced to somehow convey this in a positive light—that simple act of putting a happy spin on a message proven to be unpopular taints the communicator. Understandably, employees ask, “why did you even bother to survey us”? The options to address this situation are either spinning tone-deaf messaging or learning how to persuade reluctant leaders. There are a few components to getting reluctant leaders to act. We need to remember that we communicate both up and down. Using the survey results as an example, without constructively sharing the power of survey results upwards, we can’t expect the resulting messaging to come back down and jive with employee sentiment. The first component is straightforward: show how the data directly related to their goals. Connect the dots for them on how the efforts connect to the bottom line and how this will positively impact them. Keep in mind what motivates a specific leader to adopt transformational change may not be the same motivators as organizational goals. Additionally, find allies. Get alignment with other leaders. People are more favorable to change when others are on board. Graphs and reports are pretty and often informative. However, present the data to humanize the people it represents. There are real people associated with these numbers and charts. The way to connect the dots is to craft a plan that illustrates making leadership feel and experience it. For example, when discussing DEI policy, shortcomings, opportunities, and communications, try messaging the emotional experience related to the data. I recently researched a few dozen companies in various industries (ed-tech, finance, transportation, and a few others). Over 70% of the Leadership page consisted of middle-aged Caucasian men, with middle-aged Caucasian women rounding out most of the remainder. Minorities are primarily absent. Yet, all these organizations’ websites stated their commitment to diversity. I challenge Internal Communicators to train up and when engaging with leadership, create a message that emotes an experience. In conjunction with showing data that demonstrates diversity works (there is plenty of it), look at your own public-facing corporate About Us page. If that imagery doesn’t match organizational diversity statements, consider exhibiting pictures of diverse departments alongside images of the executive team. Lastly, set ground rules regarding common understandings when meeting with leadership - treat it as a sales task. A few years back, I went through sales training, and one of the most influential and prominent methods to persuade people was to be honest, transparent, and set the ground rules at the onset of a meeting. At the beginning of the discussion, read the company’s mission statement or diversity statement and ask if that’s correct. “Hi, Ms. CEO. I want to talk about our DEI messaging and wanted to confirm that our goal is to increase management diversity by 10% by the EOY.” Once openly establishing a common understanding, you're more readily able to get and keep buy-in and motivation. Flow with the tsunami.

References: Kastle Systems. (2022, January 19). Kastle Systems - Data Assisting in Return to Office Plans. https://www.kastle.com/safety-wellness/getting-america-back-to-work Mathews, J. (2021, December 6). Better.com CEO blasts laid-off employees, accusing them of ‘stealing’ by working only two hours daily. Fortune. https://fortune.com/2021/12/03/better-com-ceo-attacks-laid-off-employees-blind-message-board Telford, T. (2022, January 15). Corporate America is coming around to remote work. But more big changes lie ahead. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2022/01/15/remote-work-omicron