Beyond Telling and Selling to Empowerment
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Holmes Report

Beyond Telling and Selling to Empowerment

One of the book's central arguments—that communication as practiced by most corporations is inadequate and entirely different from genuine engagement—applies to a company’s external relationships just as strongly as it does to their internal communications.

Paul Holmes

John Smythe’s new book, The CEO: Chief Engagement Officer, is concerned primarily with internal communications in general and change management in particular. But one of his central arguments—that communication as practiced by most corporations is inadequate and entirely different from genuine engagement—applies to a company’s external relationships just as strongly as it does to their internal communications.

The “communication” approach to internal communications, as Smythe sees it, is about “telling the many what has been decided by the few, or—slightly better—“selling to the many what has been decided by the few.” But genuine engagement requires at least inclusion (driving accountability down by implicating individuals in the process) or, best of all, co-creation, which means including anyone who can add value in the decision-making process.

Telling typically creates hooligans or saboteurs, Smythe contends; selling creates compliant collaborators; inclusion creates willing collaborators; but genuine engagement can turn employees into “personally committed reformers.”

Needless to say, most companies are stuck—in their internal and external communications—in either a tell or sell mindset.

“When we look at the internal cultures of many, if not, corporations and institutions we find intolerant regimes that attempt to control internal media, dictate scripts and behaviors that employees must use to ‘project the brand,’ marginalize protestors who challenge the status quo and attempt social engineering on a grand scale under the ironic banners of ‘people development’ and ‘brand alignment.’”

Clearly, Smythe is cynical about the commitment of most corporations to employee engagement.

“A core argument of this book is that the employer communication movement that began in earnest in the 1980s has become stuck as a tool of the command-and-control style of leadership,” Smythe argues. “The employee communication movement set out to balance the legitimate right of the employer to align its employees with its aims by creating workplace culture that legitimized employees to challenge and influence.

“In recent years that balance has swung almost completely to aligning people with the aims of the organization. At the same time communication technology has multiplied and members of all organizations are bombarded with ‘tell and sell’ messages. As with the overuse of medication, the impact has worn off and people are switching off.”

Smythe believes employee communications campaigns go astray when they adopt the language and mindset of marketing.

“The underlying discipline influencing the first era of employee communication was marketing,” he says. “It is a flawed foundation for engaging employees as it casts employees as targets or customers to be persuaded and as human assets that the organization feels it owns…. Employees are unhappy, dissatisfied and depressed despite, and maybe because of, the sophisticated attempts to ‘customize’ and communicate at them: because seeing them as customers has made them targets for persuasion.”

Many corporate communicators will recognize their own organizations in Smythe’s description of the typical approach to employee communications.

“Management teams say they want people to feel involved, by which they mean they want their message sugar coated. Streetwise employees cringe whenever they hear bosses say they want people to feel involved. This is code for ‘we’ve decided what’s best for you but we want to manipulate you into thinking that you were part of the decision making.’ This is the commercial equivalent of government running a few focus groups and spinning the results to justify doctrinaire legislation. It rarely means actually involving people in the decision making.”

It’s easy to see how Smythe’s complaints about telling and selling can extend beyond the internal realm to the external. The attitude that effective communication essentially consists of persuading others to management’s viewpoint can be in every realm: public affairs, investor relations, marketing communications. And the potential power of genuine engagement as an alternative should be obvious in all of those realms, perhaps most immediately in the issues management arena, in the way organizations deal with communities, non-government organizations, and other critics.

This is, incidentally, why I have always found the term “corporate communications” a woefully inadequate synonym for “public relations.” Of course, communication is theoretically a two-way process (although more organizations communicate at their stakeholders rather than with them), but even when communication involves listening as well as talking, it can only do a fraction of the work involved in building a relationship with the (or a) public—since most relationships depend more on what the parties do than on what they say.

But the focus of this book on the internal realm is not surprising, given Smythe’s background, which includes a range of positions—including senior corporate positions on both sides of the Atlantic with Occidental Oil, Bethel Corporation and Marathon Oil—with an increasing emphasis on employee communications, at Wolff Olins Smythe (a subsidiary of the corporate identity firm), Smythe Dorward Lambert (ultimately sold to Omnicom), McKinsey (where much of the research that informs The CEO was conducted), and most recently at his new firm, Engage for Change.

In three decades focused on employee communications and engagement, Smythe has seen some major changes in the relationship between major corporations and those who work for them. 

“Most employees no longer enjoy or subscribe to the old psychological contract in which security is exchanged for their compliance and loyalty. The old deal is dying because few employers can, or want to, offer the security end of the old deal. And they no longer want compliant people, they want people who will engage their creativity at work.”

As for employees, they expect three things in return, beyond fair financial compensation:
• Employability to grow in their existing jobs or go elsewhere
• Opportunities to participate in decisions that affect them or to which they can add value
• Ethics and values they can identify with.

It is the second of these expectations with which Smythe concerns himself. In Smythe’s opinion, “there is the beginning of a velvet revolution taking place in business with younger leaders and brave older ones saying: We bosses are no longer gods—who must have or pretend to have all the answers—but guides who need to govern who gets involved in decision making and creating a compelling place to work in the mutual interests of the business.”

In Smythe’s view, “individuals will engage more fully if they are invited to volunteer themselves in the organization’s success.” As a result, “The underlying discipline that influences the practice of employee communication needs to shift from mass marketing to individual and collective learning.” And research conducted in conjunction with Smythe’s colleagues at McKinsey suggests that engagement is “significantly driven by the degree to which people are usefully included in the decision-making process both day-to-day and in big-ticket change, crisis and transformation.”

But there are also specific things companies can do to make the communications process more engaging. Based on Smythe’s research, he has identified several words and phrases that people associate with effective change programs. Engaged employees describe themselves as:
• Shocked to be invited to participate in such a key exercise
• Surprised at the level of creativity used by the company to set the stage for involvement
• Trusted with something normally given to more experienced or senior people
• Stretched way beyond their normal comfort zone
• Given a blank piece of paper
• Seeing the different their input made to the end result

The people involved “talked about boundless energy, giving freely of their discretionary effort, taking great personal risks and unleashing their creativity; in short, they took ownership.”

But engagement, Smythe says, “is first and foremost a management philosophy based on the idea of including the right people in the right decisions in the right way.”

Just as important, however, is what “engagement” is not. “Inclusion in decision making and change is not a one-way ticket for employees to butt their noses in wherever and however they want. Leadership sets the boundaries and governs the process; and citizens in the process have responsibilities to behave as partners in the process.

“Nor is employee engagement a free-for-all democracy or Marxism revisited; the prime outcome is to create more value by engaging the creativity of workers, an aim that will make the job better and thus bring benefits to workers too. Leaders and workers have to take risks to participate to avoid going back to bureaucratic relationships managed by go-betweens like unions and HR departments.”

Indeed, he takes time to concede that in certain circumstances and certain cultures, telling and selling may be the appropriate choices. Telling, for example, may work for a leader who is in a crisis situation with limited time, or already has a clear solution and knows that employees will support and execute that solution—perhaps because it is long overdue. Selling may be effective in similar situations “where the employee group is likely to be resistant to instruction and needs persuading to motivate and energize it.”

But he warns: “Too often, the sell mode stands for little more than ‘broadcasting’ where a campaign approach is used in an attempt to mobilize people.” Employees interviewed for his research, for example, reported that being cast as spectators—or as recipients of information and motivation—was rarely enough to engage their enthusiasm.

“Driving accountability down means implicating people as individuals,” says Smythe. “It means allowing people the time and space to apply a company-wide change to their own work and their own development, even if they had little input to the nature of the change or decision.” That approach is essential when implementing change requires a deep understanding and insight of its implications by those who must make it happen, or when local input is required to adapt a broad approach to specific conditions.

But co-creation—the optimum approach to engagement—means “identifying and working with those who will add value if they are included in decision forming and change and strategy development before decisions are made or plans for change are finalized.” (I might add a corollary, which is that it also means identifying or working with those who have the potential to destroy value if they don’t like the decision.)

According to Smythe, co-creation is a good choice when the sponsor of change knows things have to change but include “others who have the wisdom and experience to contribute” in order to find the right solution, or when the sponsor has “a perfectly good solution” but believes the affected population “may look at the problem or opportunities from a different angle and produce better solutions or at least solutions that become owned by those affected.”

To select the right approach and to ensure that employees are engaged, Smythe has coined the term “chief engagement officer,” a role he says can be adopted by everyone from the chief executive to a call center supervisor.

“The job description involves being responsible for ensuring the planning and execution of the engagement of their people in day-to-day performance and change. It means understanding that day-to-day decisions and change are incomplete until the planning and execution of engagement is concluded as part of the decision-making process.”

In Smythe’s view, the chief engagement officer has several key responsibilities:
• Advocating the company’s vision
• Focusing people on the right work
• Pastoral care: knowing and delivering what engages their people
• Power sharing: considering who to engage in decision making and execution, and governing it well
• Authentic presence: having insight and exercising discipline about personal communication style and tone
• Attractive values: including fairness and transparency

“That the CEO or the sponsor of the change is the chief engagement officer is so obvious there should be no need for it to be stated,” Smythe says. “Yet in many if not most cases of change, the CEO or sponsor is often intimately involved during the front-end thinking but often disengages when it comes to planning the engagement of the broader population beyond the executive team.”

Smythe doesn’t say it, perhaps because he believes public relations is too close to marketing, perhaps because he sees the PR department’s focus as primarily external, or perhaps because he thinks PR people are too locked into the tell or sell mindset to adapt, but there is clearly a role for public relations people in advising the chief engagement officer or even taking on the mantle themselves.

There is, I believe, a strong case to be made that engagement—rather than communication—is at the very core of what public relations is all about.

That’s why Smythe’s book—a must-read for employee communicators—should provide food for thought for all communicators.

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