Imagine you meet a friend in the street. She’s looking well, and you say “hey, how are you?” She smiles radiantly, shakes her head and says “I’m great. You know ever since I discovered new Superblonde shampoo my hair’s never looked better.”
Naturally you’d start looking for some irony. People don’t talk this way in ordinary conversation. There’s nothing specific in the vocabulary. It has to be because of the unvarnished product endorsement, and perhaps the sense that this endorsement does not fit comfortably in the normal contexts of a conversation between friends.
It probably wouldn’t happen in the real world, where apart from anything else we’ve learned to distinguish between ordinary speech and the routine hyperbole of marketing, to decode that hyperbole and put it in its place.
While that distinction is clear, there’s some pressure within the world of corporate communication to seek “authenticity”, to see it as the quality which distinguishes successful brands from their wannabe competitors. I’d be all in favour of this, except that in the ordinary run of their days marketing people seem to be able to lose all sense of what authenticity might mean, or worse, they might ask with a straight face how they can create authenticity, which is as much to say, how can they fake it.
This is hopeless, and sounds ridiculous if put this way, and yet is no more ridiculous than seeking greater employee engagement with a language that is every bit as specialised and remote from human conversation as marketing speak (because it’s no more than a variation on marketing speak).
Engagement v alignment
This happens partly because of some confusion of purpose. The concept of “engagement” is widely used but open to very different interpretations. I’d argue that it should be seen broadly, to signify a general willingness by employees to work productively and for the benefit of the community in which they are employed. Others seem to think it’s about “engagement with the company strategy”, otherwise described as “alignment”. The trouble here is that strategies change, or indeed may have few real implications for ordinary employees. This narrowed concept of engagement reflects an attitude that mistakes control for management, that mistakes the organic nature of organisations for something machine-like. It is incompatible with other important modern management aspirations for creativity, flexibility and adaptability. The broader concept of engagement serves these latter aspirations much more directly.
Proper engagement emphasises the humanity that must underpin all effective relationships. We respond more fully to other people than we do to cyphers. Of course we can manage our expectations in different contexts, which is why we can deal with sales talk when we’re being sold to. We understand the game, and will measure whatever commitments we’re prepared to give back accordingly.
There’s another level of confusion around these distinctions in the usual practice of internal communication. Because that communication is often necessarily “top down”, communicators have assumed that it’s a kind of selling exercise, in this case involving the selling of ideas.
An obvious problem is that this isn’t really a sales relationship, and if you adopt sales behaviours your audience will tend to adapt what they’re prepared to give back in line with their normal buying behaviours.
The confusion continues in the pervasive mechanisms of internal communication. Most organisations practise some form of “cascade briefing”. It reflects partly an older model of communication channels (before networked desktop computers changed everything line managers functioned as the primary gatekeepers of information), partly because there’s an entrenched belief that line managers are the best people to convey senior management information and messages.
There’s some telling research evidence to suggest this simply isn’t the case, and if you start thinking about it in terms of authenticity it’s easy to see why it couldn’t be the case. The entrenched belief is rooted in a basic syllogistic error, starting with the (correct) observation that line managers are very influential in the working lives of the teams around them, which is then lumped together with the fact that senior managers have things they need to communicate, and so a false equation is born.
Line managers are no longer information gatekeepers. Credible research suggests (unsurprisingly) that employees will give more credit to senior management information which comes direct from the source, rather than being filtered through a line manager; it’s psychologically important for us to be able to relate corporate imperatives to the people producing them, not least because they then begin to move out of the realm of abstraction. Within the terms of this piece they’re supported by a higher degree of authenticity.
This is not to suggest that line managers don’t matter, but one of the reasons they matter is that they have everyday real relationships with their staff. They are influential when they have the scope to speak for themselves, when they are in a sense “authentic”. Asking them to relay management information undermines that authenticity, demands that they behave as mouthpieces. It deforms what should be a real conversation between people with a real relationship
No doubt IC practitioners would argue that this “real relationship” is precisely why they push the information via a line manager, through whom it can be translated into directly meaningful terms for the team. But this ignores other critical factors. For one thing it assumes those managers have the communication skills to do the translation. In reality they don’t so another little industry has grown up around the need to train managers to be better communicators. While I’m sure it doesn’t hurt to help people improve their communication skills it’s another thing altogether to get them to the level where there can make somebody else’s words their own.
In any case it’s not necessary, because it’s not as though line managers and their teams exist in a sealed space. Whether through desktop video, digital or paper briefing materials, or (as much as is feasibly possible) face to face presentations senior management can and should say their bit directly. Line managers may or may not need to be given some background briefing, but they should be available primarily to have a natural, “authentic” conversation with their colleagues rather than being under pressure to channel robotically any senior management messages.
At the back of all this is a fundamental truth about the tenable scope of managed internal communication in a world of social media, employee empowerment and whatever other buzzwords we want to throw in. We cannot and should not intervene in the natural conversations going on all the time within the organisation. What we can and must do is provide an influential context for those conversations, ensuring they are as well-informed as possible, and that any strategic imperatives are properly and clearly presented. Beyond the communications task, managers need to ensure their teams have the scope to act on what they know, and if those teams do not do so they need to understand the reasons why.
There are many reasons why employees may become disengaged, and consequently do less than managers might want them to do, or respond negatively to information and direction. Those reasons need to be properly understood and addressed. Poor communication may be a factor, but then we also need to understand what poor communication looks like. Among other things it may well look like sales or marketing babble spouted out of conversational context, however polished (and the polish itself might be part of the problem, might be a barrier to a properly engaged relationship between colleagues).
Authenticity is not just about telling the truth; it’s also about being true to who and where you are.