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7 Truths Re: Communicating Controversy

Image via Dr. Wayne Dyer

1. Stand your ground. "Own it." Be loud and proud - do not shy away from your identity, beliefs or ideas. Flaunt it. "Let your freak flag fly." Do not apologize. Celebrate instead. The fact is that you can be legitimate and unpopular at the same time. Oh well. People will respect you in the end.

2. Honor others' right to disagree - intensely. Oddly, people who represent extreme or controversial beliefs often try to squash disagreement in ways ranging from the subtle to the obvious. It's almost as if they think they can force their views into the mainstream by doing so. Remember, you are mainly talking to your detractors! And you can't force them to agree or trick them into doing so, either. Generally if you want to win people over to your side, it's important to show respect for them and to lay off the proselytizing and pressuring.

3. Explain yourself early. Frequently communicators of controversial subjects wait until people ask questions -- by which time the audience is predisposed to think that you're wrong about whatever controversial thing it is you represent or do. Instead, put information out ahead of time in a very clear, again unapologetic way. Just say it. 

4. Repeat the message often. Frequently communicators get bored with the same old topic, so they switch to a new one. This actually detracts from their effectiveness because focus and repetition are what help messages stick. I personally have very strong views about branding efforts that run counter to most practitioners in the mainstream, e.g. that advertising is least important and internal communication is primary. I have been saying the same thing now for more than a decade, and only in recent years has the concept begun to catch on. Repetition is what it takes to make an idea become familiar, trusted and stick.

5. Make it personal. Controversy is one of those things where you win with logic, but also with appealing to emotion and common sense. Tell the story in terms that the audience will identify with, even if they will never agree with you. Connecting on that personal level makes it easier for the audience to listen to what you are saying and tolerate your right to say it, even if they disagree.

6. Overwhelm with information. When you represent something controversial, providing evidence accomplishes a few goals. First, it shows that you are confident enough in your views that you seek to justify them in open debate. Second, it provides an objective basis for discussion. Third, it helps the listener accept the emotional risk of opening up to your ideas. Each and every justification you provide serves as a cushion against their fear.

7. Engage many audiences. Do not just communicate with those who agree with you, those who have a direct interest in your work, and so on. Talk to everyone who might potentially interact with your organization now and in the future. Strength of message involves not only focused, coherent, and consistent messaging but also a network of relationships across a wide variety of stakeholders. And obviously, again, never insult your detractors - you can't win them all.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Marketing, Lies & The Culture Of Personal Truth

When I was eight and moved to Monsey, New York, I lived the lie that my family was ultra-Orthodox. But the other kids found out my mom wore pants and didn't cover her hair. And they made fun of me.

In sleep-away camp I lived the lie that I was as rich as the kids who paid o go there. But my mom was the camp nurse, my tuition was free, and my clothes gave away the secret. We weren't rich at all.

When I went to college I lived the lie that I at least kept the Sabbath. Then I spent a weekend at my friend Janima's house in Pennsylvania. Her dad drove us around town and it was fun. I returned to school on Sunday and when I spoke to my mother, she didn't like what she heard. I did not hear from her for awhile.

Lying to get by, to be accepted, to be loved. We suffer from the lies that were imposed on us. But we learn at the same time that masks are necessary.

In fact it is a social skill to lie. So why am I always amazed at how smoothly people do it? Why am I shocked by the pathological ease with which some people bend, stretch and snap the truth?

I know what it is that bothers me. Not the  fact that people lie to survive. What's disturbing is when a person stops realizing the difference between true and false.

That is the problem with marketing, isn't it? In the past, wherever you stood on that line between truth and falsehood, reality stood with certainty somewhere.

In marketing the truth is what you make of it. The integrity comes from achieving a different kind of truth - "it feels real to me." "It's authentic."

It's hard to say whether we are better off now than in the past. In a sense I think we are, because everyone has the recognized right to live their truth. But in another way we are truly messed up in our heads. Because when you legitimize "my truth" versus "your truth," "his" and "hers," what you end up with is a group that cannot have a real dialogue. 

At some point there is conflict between what I believe and what you believe. The solution cannot always be retreating to our corners. Yet we should not fight it out until death or dominance either.

The third way, one that takes a lot of maturity, is to engage in the tough discussions. Maybe we can live and let live while also acknowledging some central truth or reality.

Without that agreement that fact does exist, we can never tell the truth really. Because what we say is always just a matter of opinion, or biased propaganda.

Validating The Other Person - A Key Communication Skill

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Bronco Suzuki via Flickr. It shows U.S. Army Sgt. Dustin Mace, left, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, playing pattycakes with a child in the Furat area of Baghdad, Iraq, May 8, 2007. 

My daughter was frustrated with me the other night.

Tired and impatient, I rushed her through the edits needed for her English essay. She stomped out of the room.

Five minutes later she was back.

"I want to read you a letter."

She then read me about a page and a half of notes. About how my impatience made her feel. (Essentially like being run over by a truck.)

If she had merely said those words to me and not taken the time to write them, I would likely have dismissed her feedback. Emotion meets emotion and the net effect is zero.

But when I saw the words themselves I realized that the effect of my impatience was imprinted on her brain.

When we take the time to validate people it does not mean we agree with them. It does mean we acknowledge their right to feel, think, and perceive differently than we do.

Acknowledging the other person. It is not just listening or even hearing. It is repeating their words back to them. Saying in effect, "I understand."

Unless two people are doing that in conversation, there is no real conversation going on.

To Make The Organization Transparent To Itself

                                                                                Image via free wallpapers

The ordinary person can't avoid germs. In just the same way the organization can't avoid potentially toxic environmental hazards.

This is because organizations are composed of people - plenty of psychological problems there. 

Those people interact in groups - which means power struggles and cultural conflict.

Groups are of many different kinds - some inherent to the organization and some not. For example there could be differences between one department and another. Between genders. Or both and many others.

Both individuals and groups compete for resources. So now we bolt on another layer of conflict, the economic struggle to survive.

And we still have not considered all the pressures from outside the organization. That is the many stakeholders who want to influence its direction.

If you stop to think about it...

Organizational health is achievable. It is.

But it has to be taken as seriously and as literally as the physical health of an individual.

In the case of a person, we know what factors promote or hinder disease. 

--If you don't sleep, don't move, smoke, abuse food, drink or do drugs, avoid friendship, and engage in overly stressful activity -- you will die too soon.

--We also know that if you invest in preventive self-care over many years rather than waiting until your body is diseased, you minimize the chance that you will have to do drastic things to recover from an illness. Because you have some health in reserve.

--Finally, if you care for your mind, body and spirit holistically, you will spend less time chasing symptom after symptom. Because health is a system in which the parts work together.

Yet none of the above will work if you fail to do one very important thing. And that is to acknowledge that you need your health in the first place. Or worse yet, deny the symptoms when something is going wrong.

In the case of the organization we routinely make all of these mistakes.

--We know what kind of leadership and management behaviors promote a good workplace, and which make it sink like a stone in the river. But we do not insist that they occur.

--We know that making little investments proactively over time build an emotional "bank account" that serve as a buffer in times of stress. But we wait for a crisis to do something.

--We know that a problem in one part of the organization usually means a problem somewhere else. But we continue to look at such issues in isolation.

But the worst thing we do, knowing all of the above, is to ignore or deny it when problems exist. Shooting the messengers  who bring us bad tidings.

This is not to say that we should run around being negative. "Oh yes, that's us, we're terrible," etc.

It does mean that we should be having ongoing safe conversations about our organizational health. Just like a regular doctor's checkup - what is going on? Are there early signs of problems? What can we do?

Investing in our physical health is an insurance policy. It protects not just us but the ones we love and have pledged to care for.

It is much the same thing with the organization. We are there for our own careers, true. But by joining we have made a pledge to the group, to take care of them not just in parts but as a whole.

Transparency is important for the outside. But it is fundamentally more important at home.  

* As always all opinions are my own.


Thoughts On The "Deviance" Of Employees Who Speak Up

Internally unfortunately caring and committed employees are often labeled as "rogue", in different words ("loose cannon," "troublemaker"). They get this label when they see and name the elephant in the room. Could be anything from a broken process to worse. They are not at all "outside" the team, they are "of" the team and the mission and they care that much that they put themselves at risk to speak.

This is not to say that there aren't actually troubled employees who act to destroy the organization - that is a completely different matter. Those employees must be separated from the group and held to account. (Leaders are responsible for seeing and acting.)

The point has been made that "rogue" can be used as a way of shifting blame even as blame is taken. It should be said that without a full and transparent investigation one does not know for sure, and using partial evidence (this person's words or that person's accusation) to tell a whole story is biased and misleading. The truth is usually about a thousand times more complicated than any headline.

Our advanced brains can get us in trouble. For in the animal kingdom or in a war or primitive survival situation, the ability to see danger gives you an advantage. But in social life (whether organized religion, bureaucracy, educational institutions or what have you) -- naming problems makes you the problem. "No good deed goes unpunished." And so the organization shoots the messenger and eventually crumples itself.

This is so common a phenomenon and so persistent that I am always surprised at the standard questions after the fact, e.g., "why didn't anyone do anything? why didn't anyone speak up?" Most people learn from school on up that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. You see this very prominently in cases of child molesters, who have gotten away with it for decades and decades, covered by the school, the family, the religious institution. Until the very moment that the molester is prosecuted and put in jail, people attack the victims and their advocates.

The Single, Simple Reason Why Organizations Are Their Own Worst Enemies

It's not that big a deal but that doesn't mean it's easy. Because from what I've seen most organizations cannot figure this one out.
  • Single-loop learning is when you improve in the EXISTING system you've set up. If you do dumb, unnecessary, duplicative, inefficient things -- you do them faster.
  • Double-loop learning is when you ask WHY am I doing these things in the first place. What are my assumptions, that lead me to act like this? Because if they make no sense, I should stop doing them. 
The single vs. double-loop learning distinction was introduced by Chris Argyris in the '70s. See article in the Harvard Business Review, or simply Google "double-loop learning."

Unfortunately it usually takes a crisis to make an organization confront its own faulty assumptions. But it does not have to be that way. All you need to do is read, noting the gap between external coverage of the organization, and internal talk. 

This is actually part of a communicator's job, although we don't often hear about it -- not only representing the organization to the outside world, but representing the outside viewpoint to internal constituents.

What If It Was A Rotten Apple, At The IRS Or Anywhere?

Of course anything is possible, and we weren't there. But it is the job of leadership and management to take responsibility no matter what because the leader sets the tone.

  • Take the example of parenting. Let's say your kid is a bully and they have a psychological disability that causes aggressive behavior, it would be up to you as the parent to take responsibility by getting them help. Up to the school to keep them away from other kids when those kids are not safe. Etc.
  • Or take the example of the military. If you join the military you should not have to worry about being assaulted by your own colleagues. Responsibility for setting the tone goes to the people in charge, and then discipline has to happen when people step out of line.
  • Or the ordinary workplace. If you are a religious person, you should be able to dress in religious garb, pray, etc. without anyone making fun of you, and without suffering from discrimination by a boss. If that does happen, sure you can say it is the person's fault who did it, but it is also the fault of the system if such behavior is reported and nothing gets done. Or if there is no institutional mechanism for ensuring fair treatment.

Back to the IRS. This is where the chief executive is also the chief communicator and brand officer and it is something the new IRS chief Danny Werfel seems to understand.

Werfel told Congress flat-out -- WE, the people in charge -- the leadership and management team -- are responsible. Whether or not individuals did anything wrong out of their own volition, WE have to answer to the American people. He also said, don't give us any more money until we figure out what happened here -- which is an incredible statement to make.

Here is a brief clip from the testimony. This is the sound of someone saying the right thing because they are saying the truth.

"One of the important points I want to make is that the solution here in my opinion is not more money. The solution is to understand what controls need to be put in place, what oversight, what getting the right leadership in place, the right processes in that collective way."

And here is where we go back to communication. The best strategy is simple, straightforward, direct responsiveness to the concerns of your stakeholders in a way that leads to a more positive end.

(It should be noted that Werfel is new. Therefore internal organizational culture/politics have not yet had a chance to distort the thinking or the words.)

When leaders blame employees as a hair-trigger response, it is a cowardly thing to do and instead of reassuring the public it actually makes them angrier and more mistrustful. Again, whether or not that fact is technically accurate, the first thing a leader must do is own the problem.


* As always, all opinions are my own.

7 Reasons Not To Blame "Rogue Employees" For Organizational Problems

When a word or phrase is used multiple times in the same way it starts to have the ring of messaging. And several times now, the word "rogue" has been used to blame federal government employees for wrongdoing carried out under the government's name:

Example #1, May 16, 2013:
  • "News of (Acting IRS Director) Miller's resignation followed revelations that the IRS has identified two 'rogue' employees in the agency's Cincinnati office as being principally responsible for the 'overly aggressive' handling of requests by conservative groups for tax-exempt status, a congressional source told CNN". Miller in the same briefing stated that the employees were, quote unquote, "off the reservation."  (CNN)
Example #2, August 27, 2012:
  • "Since the controversy was first exposed, a divide has developed between the ATF staff in Phoenix who oversaw and implemented Fast and Furious; and their supervisors at ATF headquarters and the Justice Department. The Phoenix officials say higher-ups approved of the case. But the higher-ups say it was all the brainchild of rogue ATF officials in Phoenix." (CBS News)
Management writer Lawrence Serewicz points out that the term "rogue" is frequently used as an excuse for bad organizational behavior, i.e. "rogue ex-employee," "rogue trader," and so on. In "The Myth of the Rogue Employee: Rotten Barrels Create Rotten Apples," he explains why this is dangerous:

1. "All employees work and operate within an organisational context. For a rogue employee to exist, and operate, there has to be a lack of organisational (managerial) oversight."

2. "The 'rogue employee' is a dangerous myth because it is an attempt to cover systemic issues."

3. "When a rogue employee defence is used, it is also an admission that the internal communication system, where negative (or critical) information is not being communicated upwards, is not working."

4. "The rogue employee myth allows the fellow employees to feel that they have no responsibility for their colleagues’ behaviour."

5. "It presents a false, deceptive, dangerous image to the public."

6.  "The barrel becomes rotten before rotten apples emerge."

7. "The defence, undoubtedly developed for managerial reasons as well as legal reasons, (leaves) the organisation vulnerable to its unravelling. Once...proven otherwise, the whole defence crumbles."

At the end of the day, scapegoating people with this kind of language, even if technically accurate, creates more problems than it solves. Better to assume responsibility (quickly), make all information transparent, implement the necessary reforms, and move on.

* As always all opinions are my own.

5 Lies People Tell To Keep Power

1. Open dissent is disloyal.

2. There is only one right way to do things.

3. G-d is with them and against their enemies.

4. All the data is by default confidential.

5. If you don't acknowledge it, it is not there.

Federal Employees Are People, Too

It's not fair to continually attack the federal worker, calling us lazy, wasteful, greedy and now the word "rogue."

Feds are people just like everybody else, no better and no worse, but as a group we are:

  • Dedicated
  • Hardworking
  • Respectful of the chain of command.
We do have to make things better, always. But we shouldn't let the enemy be the perfect of the good.

* As always all opinions are my own and I only speak for myself.