Friday, February 7, 2014

Chirpy Communications & The Orwellian Enterprise

One time, in a foul mood, I yelled at my daughter as we were getting in the car after grocery shopping.

And then, when I had calmed down, I was prepared to forget the whole thing. Except I couldn't cook up any "spin" for dinner.

She had put on her iPhone and taped me ranting. 

Now, let's say my daughter was an employee of mine, and I had to figure out what to do about it from a corporate communications point of view. Not able to ignore it, I might come up with a snooze-worthy version for the newsletter that reads something like this:

"Complex and sensitive subjects are no barrier to parent-child closeness in the Blumenthal home."

Or I could get more daring, more first-person and say,

"We had a slight generational conflict in the car." 

Yawn, yawn, yawn.

Let's say my daughter were to suggest actually playing the viral video, over and over on the TV monitors in the lobby near the front hall.

There I'd be, in the parking lot, all haggard from an hour of shopping in a maze of aisles. Fed up, and a little bit cranky. At the slightest provocation, yelling,

"Blah blah blah blah blah." (Insert whatever parents say when they're ranting for no good reason.)

Staff would pass by that monitor and go,

"Wow, I can't believe it. Blumenthal. Isn't she an executive or something? Goodness gracious."

Knowing that, what should I do? Me, the corporate parent?

Let's be honest. I, like 99% of executives, would never see it as any sort of opportunity - I might even think that video could be used as blackmail!

Even though it could be helpful to talk about how to handle conflict in a better way, and to use myself as an example.

No matter what it says in the cool articles in Fast Company, most executives are not gonna get onstage in hoodies and brag about yelling. Communications are supposed to make us look good, not bad - right? ("Why give them ammo?")

Thus the majority model of corporate communication remains "chirpy." Like a bird, it sings a beautiful song, but there's little of any meaning behind the melody.

Phony talk accompanies the Orwellian mindset in which not only are people supposed to go along with the mold, they're supposed to change their thinking so that they actually believe what they're reading has meaning.

The organizational dynamic works something like this:
  • Designated "shamers" - people with power - keep people in line, formally and informally. They use nice techniques (happy, pretty, glossy brochures) and not-nice techniques (marginalizing, punishing, even firing) to spray "fumes" at those who threaten to mess up the narrative.
  • Some people understand the lack of transparency, and some of those people may speak up, but most get tired of resisting the system after awhile and stop trying. They tune out. (They see the bland corporate newsletter but they don't even see it anymore.)
  • Leaders see that "most people are just fine" and are fearful of "upsetting the applecart" even if they sense that communication is not all that helpful or compelling. 
  • The combination of leader reticence and popular tiredness changes the collective consciousness. People consciously manage their dress, demeanor, etc. so as to fit in and subconsciously manage their thinking. They know that in a toxic culture, where honest conflict cannot be aired, to betray even a hint of disagreement is a mark of disloyalty, so they curl up into a ball.
  • The result is a culture of robots, and we wonder why "nobody is engaged" or "why there are no good new ideas around here."

Occasionally we hear about a mistake of the "hot mic" - when a leader says what they really think. I don't mind those mistakes so much. I actually prefer them to the rehearsed appearances that most leaders do.
When it comes to communications, I think most people agree. Give people more of the real deal and less of the phony grin. Chances are, they'll love you for it. Because everybody appreciates a leader who opens minds, rather than closing doors.
* All opinions my own.