Build your 2020 internal comms strategy on these 4 pillars

Given the sociopolitical rollercoaster we’re all riding, bringing calm to and maintaining integrity within your workplace culture are exceedingly challenging and supremely important.

Here’s the big question: Are you ready?

I mean, are you really ready for what 2020 is going to bring? In the U.S., we have the presidential elections in the midst of urgent societal issues around immigration, financial stability, climate change and corporate ethics, to name a few. Our employees are citizens; they are people, people with family, friends, lives.

As lovely as it would be to expect employees to come to work each day focused entirely on their jobs and being excellent stewards of our brand and giving back to their community, we are going to have to prepare for employees’ being rocked in some way by what’s going on in the world.

We need the help of a strong communication strategy to guide us through business fluctuations, and we also need to build in culture fluctuations at a level never before seen. I believe culture problems lead to business problems and business problems lead to more culture problems.

Sometimes, culture problems are created by waves outside our companies or in other parts of our companies, and employees find themselves caught in the middle, or lost, or confused, or even angry, because they didn’t see it coming, they didn’t hear it first from the company, or they aren’t seeing their employer make a stand.

I don’t want to see fellow communicators caught off guard and back on our heels when we have this chance to take inventory and make adjustments. I want communicators to feel supported, that we are not alone and that we can be a part of the change we need to see in our businesses.

So, I’m sharing what I use as the backbone of every communications strategy and plan I put together. It can apply to just about any scenario, as it’s impossible to prepare for every possible thing that can happen.

My strategies come down to:

  • aligning with the business strategy/mission/vision/purpose
  • tying in the company values in a very tangible, authentic and experiential way
  • ensuring that employees feel seen, heard and valued.

With these three pieces, I then glue it together with the Four Pillars of Integrity.

The Four Pillars of Integrity are authored by the Hendricks Institute, an organization that focuses on personal and intrapersonal relationships. By looking at their research and findings and adding a business lens, their work is completely transferable to the workplace.

What’s a company but a bunch of people in various forms of relationships together?

Communication is at the core of any relationship’s success or failure. At the core of successful communications is trust. At the core of trust is an individual’s integrity. Leaders, managers and employees are being called upon to show integrity in order to build trust and communications can foster these relationships.

The Four Pillars of Integrity

  • Impeccable agreements: Just as the book “The Four Agreements” speaks to being impeccable with our word, impeccable agreements are key to setting expectations with both leaders and employees. Agreement deals with “harmony or accordance in opinion or feeling … arrangement between parties as to a course of action … consistency.”
    • What agreements are already in place (values, performance metrics, cadence of communications, other mutual understandings)? Write these out so you know what you have to work with and what you need to add to fill the gaps.
    • I highly recommend that you have an agreement based on a culture of respect—beyond the values and HR policies. For example, with the looming presidential election in the U.S., different perspectives will come up in the breakroom and on Slack. Start setting the tone that your company is a place that respects varying perspectives: We respect our colleagues. We are strong in our diversity, inclusion and belonging, and no forms of bullying or harassment are tolerated. You’ll see employees self-govern and call out unacceptable dialogue.
    • Social codes can be more powerful than any HR policy in guiding respectful behavior. So, how you and leaders speak will set that tone that becomes an agreement of the respectful social code.
  • Authentic speaking and resonant listening: Although this point may seem self-explanatory, let’s not take its power for granted.
    • Consider levels of transparency, authenticity, frequency, etc., in good times and bad.
    • Using jargon-free and inclusive language appropriate for your audience. (Avoid U.S. sports analogies for a global audience, for example.) I’m not sure how it happens that when we start typing an @everyone email, some jargon alien takes over our brains and fingers, but resist. Stay human and present, conversational and approachable. The quickest way to lose integrity is to sound like a robot (or alien).
    • Make sure your strategy has room for extroverts who want to ask questions and give feedback, but also for introverts. I am very aware of leaders’ not wanting anonymous questions during an all-hands or town hall company meeting for example. However, this is not about them. It’s about employees’ feeling heard in a safe way. It’d be wonderful not to need anonymous features any longer and, yes, we can certainly work toward that. However, employees come into our organizations with all kinds of past baggage and wounds. We don’t have to know why they need that outlet; just know and honor that they do.
  • Emotional literacy: This speaks to staying human in our communications. Empathy is the key here. Our strategy must include understanding what our audience is going through before/during/after receiving our communications.
    • Use empathetic language to help guide employees through a change, or informing them of exciting company news, keep in mind ways you can be inclusive. For example, promotions are indeed exciting, but perhaps not for everyone—like the person who thought they deserved one and their colleague didn’t. What ways can you design communications considering the various reactions your audience may experience?
    • Words hurt, or they heal. Words either keep the status quo, or change it. Be intentional, conscious and empathetic.
  • Healthy response-ibility: This pillar of integrity ties it all together by asking us to take the other three and make sure we are coming back to helping employees feel seen, heard and valued.
    • Make sure your communications strategy maps out key business and culture changes/improvements/milestones and provides updates. When something happens, respond. Don’t go silent. Lean on your strategy and the three other pieces I mentioned to support your response. Before something happens, be proactive. After something happens, keep people updated on how you’re taking in and incorporating feedback and the results. . We are in a different scenario from our PR friends, who can hang on until the news cycles out. Our employees will remember if we don’t handle something with integrity. It will harm trust and productivity.
    • Know, based on your company mission/vision/purpose and values, where you stand on issues integral to the company and its stakeholders, so you’re ready when called upon to respond or act.

The Business Roundtable, made up of 181 CEOs, has shifted the purpose of a corporation from serving shareholders to serving all stakeholders. There are significant benefits to this statement.

As communicators, we can lead our organizations into 2020 and beyond by being aware of the needs of our employees, understanding the requirement for communications and the leaders who implement them, that when grounded in integrity, we can design a strategy for all of our stakeholders and for just about anything.

Kim Clark is an affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group and specializes in strategy, diversity and inclusion communications, culture, and internal communications. 

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