The Pew Research’s News Interest Index for a week in Julyconcluded that people surveyed were actually more interested in stories about Michael Jackson’s death, as well as the economy and health care reform, than news media’s coverage provided.
With the glut of coverage and cries of overkill for these stories, this is a surprising revelation. The lesson for leaders? If you want to know what people are thinking, don’t rely on second-hand reports from others. Ask employees yourself and listen to what they have to say. Political campaigns are particularly expert in this area when they test market messages and conduct tracking polls. By measuring impact and understanding, they are able to shape and re-shape their messages for greater impact. (Some may call this pandering; others may regard it as responsiveness.)
Corporate leaders do not need to hire pollsters but they do need to be more cognizant of the impact of their messages. Most managers are very good at giving messages; following up with repeated iterations is more of a challenge, but a greater challenge is often gauging the effect of the message. We see this most evidently during organizational transformation efforts. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm expended in getting the word out about the “big change” but relatively little follow up in terms of listening and evaluating impact. To address this, consider these suggestions when crafting your next communication plan.
Walk the halls. Make yourself visible to your team by spending time in their work areas. Be approachable so people can engage you in conversation. Be prepared to begin conversations about new product launches, service improvements, or efficiency initiatives. Ask people how these things are working for them.
Listen to feedback. Give them time to respond. Ask follow-up questions related to their experiences so you get beyond the seventh-grader’s answer to how are things at school — fine! When you hear such responses, people may be too timid to voice an honest answer. Be conversational to encourage folks to share more information.
Report on feedback. Let your colleagues know what you are hearing and what it means. For example, if you are discovering that customers hate the service upgrade, report on it. Likewise if employees are enthusiastic about an initiative, you can be heartened, but stay tuned for further updates. Many initiatives are well received, only to die later from lack of support.
Report on revisions. If you make a major change, or even a minor one, communicate it. Also, do more follow up to see how it is working. This is especially critical when there is initial resistance. Few things are more powerful than a senior executive saying, “we heard you and we are making changes.” That gives a leader instant credibility, as long as there is appropriate follow through.
Conduct a communications audit. Corporate leaders do not need to conduct tracking polls but communication audits around what people are thinking, feeling, and doing related to company initiatives can be useful. Such audits can be done quickly and cost effectively online. Again, report the results to everyone so you keep the organization up to date.
There is an additional point about the prevailing news coverage that is relevant to communicating in tough times. While economic news is generally bleak right now, there are periodic bits of good news, “green shoots” as pundits are fond of calling them. If those green shoots are related to your business, make certain you make a point of linking that good news to what your team does. Do not assume people will figure it out; connect the dots for them. For example, if you are in the alternative energy field, talk up federal funding as well as an uptick in consumer awareness and corporate demand.
Leaders need to keep their fingers on the pulses of their organizations. Many executives fear being blindsided by what they do not know — like lack of capability, resources, manpower and talent that will affect business growth. Those executives who spend time out and about with their people have few such fears. They know the score and as a result, can steer their organizations with a greater sense of awareness.