A few weeks ago, Josh Bernoff wrote about an internal memo from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella concerning layoffs.
He criticized Nadella for using the language of a victim, such as “impacting” and “reductions.”
Clearly, the Microsoft corporate communications team helped Nadella develop this message. Rarely does a CEO or senior leader write an important message to employees on his or her own.
Even with a number of communications pros involved (including most likely the senior-level communicator for Microsoft), the message came across as unclear and full of corporate-speak.
Herein lies the challenge for every corporate communicator when helping an executive communicate with lower-level staff.
Having spent 10-plus years in corporate communications roles, I see a few key challenges:
Executives and rank-and-file employees speak different languages.
Just look at the background and education of any top-tier executive. Generally he or she starts out in a managerial or executive position, having earned an advanced degree from a place like Harvard, Stanford or Wharton. Also, these top execs are usually locked in meetings all day with other high-ranking officers. So, they all speak the same language laden with corporate buzzwords.
Meanwhile, most rank-and-file employees speak and read at an eighth-grade level. (Twenty-one percent of Americans read below a fifth-grade level.) So, you have an executive with a Harvard education who reads and writes at a 19th-grade level trying to compose a message to an audience comprising people who have a fifth- to eighth-grade reading level. See the problem?
Executives control our futures.
You know that layoffs memo you’ve been working on? Who do you think made the tough decision to can those 5,000 employees? The CEO, the very person you’re working with. So, it’s difficult for us communicators to challenge those executives when they have a direct say about our livelihoods. I’m not saying communicators don’t stand up to executives from time to time. I’m not even saying they shouldn’t. I am saying this is probably an issue. After all, we do want to keep our jobs.
There are massive egos at play.
You’ve probably run into one or two high-ranking executives who thought fairly highly of themselves. It just comes with the territory.
You don’t get to be a CEO without self-confidence. In many ways, it’s a good thing, but when it comes to helping an executive craft a message, egos frequently prove problematic.
Everyone fancies himself a writer; execs are no different. When putting together employee communications, they often bulldoze the communicator because they think they know best.
So, what’s a communicator to do?
I don’t have a list for you today, but I do have one word: trust. That’s at the heart of this whole deal. If you can cultivate the trust and good will of your executive partners, it eases the process of developing difficult messages to employees.
A version of this article first appeared on Communications Conversations.