Communication as Influence

Proper communication techniques -- including an understanding of what listeners remember and the importance of coordinating internal and external messages -- will add value to the HR role and to overall organizational effectiveness.

Sunday, November 1, 2009
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In Human Resource Executive®'s Forecast issue (published in November 2007 looking forward to 2008,) Edward E. Lawler III, distinguished professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, wrote, "Instead of focusing on what HR needs to do to be a business partner, I would argue that the key to the future success of HR is not in becoming a business partner, but in focusing on organizational effectiveness.

"I firmly believe if HR does not adopt organizational effectiveness as its major focus, it will be the worst of times. But, if HR can become a significant contributor to organizational effectiveness, it will be the best of times, because it will position HR to add value in ways that are truly significant."

One of the ways that HR can add "organizational effectiveness" is by adopting and owning a model and approach to communication that creates a consistent set of definitions, strategies and expectations across the enterprise.

Read any HR publication, and the word "communication" comes up at least a dozen times. Communication is important during mergers or downsizings, when starting open enrollment for benefits, and for any initiative from wellness to expat repatriation.

I have examined communication strategies and training for hundreds of companies and found familiar shortcomings: Too frequently, companies equate effectiveness with "more" -- more brochures, more information. Today, HR has discovered social media so "more" means YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

If you're looking for organizational effectiveness or "adding value," what could be better than saving the company from lawsuits and huge legal judgments, destroyed reputation and even going out of business?

Tall claims. And yet, that's what our methodology would have provided for UBS and Bear Stearns. Because these techniques can be used for internal communication, and because they do not fall into the purview of other traditional ways of slicing up a company, HR has the opportunity to embrace them and drive a common culture of communication throughout the company.

A common culture requires shared definitions. Most companies and executives start with the mind-set of what they want to say or what they think the target audience needs to know. But when you ask how much your listener remembers from what you say -- a lot or a little -- everyone knows it's just a little.

Time permits only an initial examination of what drives the memory of the listener, but it's the right topic for HR to start with. The first step is to agree that effective communication is not what you want to say, it's what the listener hears, believes and remembers. Frequently, it's also what you want the listener to pass on to someone else.

Step Two is to embrace the concept of alignment. That is, there are clearly definable routes or networks to your target listener or audience.

There's what we call the "formal network," what the listener knows that you control. This includes most of what HR does, ranging from forms and brochures to interactive Web sites.

Then, there's what's loosely called the media, although the definition of what's media is also changing dramatically and at breakneck speed.

Finally, there's how we encounter the listener-audience. Internally, this means various meetings or person-to-person conversations, etc.

Alignment requires that what is conveyed along the formal network should always be consistent with -- or aligned with -- what the listener receives along the other two networks. HR professionals have experience with what happens when information from one source in a company is contradicted by, or misaligned, with what another source says or what a company does.

A number of years ago, we took a company, the largest in its industry, through bankruptcy and reorganization. In these situations, management always stresses the importance of teamwork, of being exceptionally cost conscious and that every individual can make a difference.

The 50 top executives at this company parked their leased Mercedes underground, next to the elevator banks. Everyone else parked out in the large parking lot. So every employee had to trot past those Mercedes at least twice a day. They were the source of one of the biggest gripes I heard from employees. The CEO was confounded, saying "they're leased, and we'll lose money if we break the leases." He failed to understand the intangible cost and the contradiction of the visual of the expensive cars with the daily message of cost savings. 

The first, and we believe one of the most powerful, drivers of memory are the words a company chooses to use. They represent the articulation of the soul, values and blueprint for the company. 

In a company with a shared communication culture, you will hear the top executives articulating these words with passion and looking for opportunities to use them. For example, at FedEx, the words speed, reliability, satisfied customers, exceeding expectations and so on, aren't just words. They're the promise every FedEx employee makes.

It's personal. We call these "good words." That is, they're the anchors of what the company wants the listener to hear, believe, remember and pass on.

And these words don't just appear in a pitch situation.

When we're benchmarking a company, we try to sit in on as many meetings and internal presentations as we can. Frequently, you'll hear a lot of these "good words." Then, the question and answer or back and forth discussion begins. Guess what happens to these "good words?" They disappear. This clearly signifies to the listener that they were just pitch words.

Of course, if there are "good words," there must be "bad words," the words that represent what the company doesn't want passed on. Words can be bad, but also true. For example, layoffs is a bad word to most audiences. The issue is whether a company also can articulate truthfully a set of good words, such as respect, assistance, fair treatment and so on to counter the negative words.

E-mail has become a ubiquitous, frequently overused channel of communication. It's a combination of person-to-person communication electronically enabled. Most large companies issue guidelines about the proper use or overuse of e-mail. We've seen 20-page memos on the topic. They never get read.

We have two very simple rules. The first and most important is that if an e-mail has a "bad word" in it, count on it reaching other people.

Sound simple? By introducing this model and the accompanying methodology, the Swiss giant banking house, UBS, might not be facing a court order to post a $35 million bond as part of litigation initiated by a large customer.

UBS represented that it sold "investment grade securities" to a Connecticut hedge fund, Pursuit Partners. It said so on all the brochures and in PowerPoint presentations. But internally, UBS traders were referring to the same products as "vomit" and "crap." Pretty easy to identify which are the good words and which are the bad words.

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A Google search of the judge's decision in September brings up an amazing list of headlines, including: "Silo Breaker: For UBS, Some Securities Were 'Crap' or 'Vomit.' " Or my favorite: "Lords of the Underworld: UBS Employee called CDO 'Vomit' in 2007."

The case also has a significant ethics component, but it's enough to note here that if HR had aggressively preached the concept that the words used to an external audience along the formal network of communication be the same used by the company along the informal networks; if they had a clear message about the simplistically named but robust concept of good and bad words; we believe that someone could have flagged the egregious situation.

In other words, getting people to adopt a common model and set of definitions enables employees to point out inconsistencies without having to step into the problematic role of whistleblower.

And while $35 million is small potatoes for UBS, the ramifications of the incident are global. Who will trust them when they say they have investment-grade securities?

Now, let's turn to Bear Stearns, where we can see how bad words can affect actual behavior. Think of the letter that Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., leaked calling into question whether IndyMac bank was about to "fail" -- and it immediately did.

One of the most common mistakes is to repeat and deny a negative word. The listener is likely to ignore the denial and actually hear the opposite of what the speaker is trying to say.

We've been using humor for 20 years to get people to understand the implications, by highlighting what we call "bimbo" comments -- named for the young woman, who, when caught in a tryst with a high profile, married man, announced to the world, "I am not a bimbo." Thus, she caused everyone to think she was.

While our monthly bimbo winners can be amusing, they are no laughing matter. Bear Stearns' CEO was the 2008 winner. On a Wednesday, the company issued a press release and he went on CNBC to announce, "Bear Stearns does not have liquidity problems." By that weekend, they were part of JPMorgan Chase.

While HR professionals may think they pay a great deal of attention to communication, it's not sufficient unless it has an overarching, robust, enterprisewide application. When we look at what HR departments are providing -- if they are providing any communication training -- it's frequently basic courses in the most elementary presentation skills.

Eye contact and body language are important, but if you don't know how to influence what the listener remembers, and worse, you don't have a teachable methodology to accomplish it, your hand gestures don't matter much.

Of course, for those who remember comedian Bill Cosby's immortal monologues from when he was a stand-up comedian in Philadelphia, his admonition to pro athletes is still true: "Do not touch certain areas of your body."

Adopting and disseminating a shared analysis and approach and a common set of definitions and techniques allow HR to "touch" the entire enterprise, and to go far beyond the elementary expectation of what's effective. This supports the goals of having HR contribute to high level strategy and, as Lawler advises, to "organizational effectiveness."

Merrie Spaeth is the founder and president of Dallas-based Spaeth Communications, Inc., a strategic communication consulting and training firm. Merrie is a pioneer in communication theory and executive training, and is acknowledged as one of the most influential communication counselors in the world. She served as a White House Fellow and was assigned to FBI Director William Webster. After the FBI, she served two years as the director of public affairs for the Federal Trade Commission, and in 1983, President Ronald Reagan named her director of media relations at the White House. Merrie founded Spaeth Communications, Inc. in 1987.

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