MillerKnoll CEO goes viral over ‘pity party’ comment, Google’s rush to be first on AI raises ethical concerns

Plus, Meta lets go of tech teams in major layoffs.

Greetings, comms pros! Let’s look at some news stories from this week and see what lessons we can learn from them.

1 . CEO of MillerKnoll catches backlash after “pity party” comment to employees

When times get tough, employees should be able to look to leadership for words of assurance and affirmation. MillerKnoll CEO Andi Owen gave us all a lesson in how not to communicate as a leader after telling her employees to stop the “pity party” in a video leaked to the internet and now making the rounds on social media.

According to NPR:

“Don’t ask about ‘what are we going to do if we don’t get a bonus?’ Get the damn $26 million,” Owen says in the video, in apparent reference to an internal financial performance target.

“Spend your time and your effort thinking about the $26 million we need and not thinking about what you’re going to do if you don’t get a bonus, all right? Can I get some commitment?” the CEO says, while waving her finger at her staff on the screen.

Well, that’s not great. We all know that times are tough right now — excoriating your employees isn’t the way to improve morale and get things moving in the right direction again. If there’s an issue, speak to your employees with compassion and try to understand what they’re struggling with. One of the biggest keys to positive and productive communication is understanding. A good leader learns what their employees are dealing with and works with them to fix it rather than speaking from the ivory tower.

2. Google’s desire to win the AI race caused ethical lapses

AI has been a hot topic of conversation lately, especially in the world of communications. There’s ChatGPT, Bing, and Google’s Bard just to name a few. But Google’s rush to be first may have left the door open for negative consequences down the road.

According to Bloomberg:

Shortly before Google introduced Bard, its AI chatbot, to the public in March, it asked employees to test the tool.

One worker’s conclusion: Bard was “a pathological liar,” according to screenshots of the internal discussion. Another called it “cringe-worthy.” One employee wrote that when they asked Bard suggestions for how to land a plane, it regularly gave advice that would lead to a crash; another said it gave answers on scuba diving “which would likely result in serious injury or death.”

Google launched Bard anyway.

With so many questions yet to be answered about generative AI, this is concerning, to put it mildly. Employees should take precautions around AI to begin with, like taking care not to put proprietary information into an AI program — but what if the program spits back false information? This sort of technology is exciting and potentially groundbreaking, but this is a situation in which it’s better to be correct than fast. While we’re still developing ethical frameworks around AI as communicators, this is a cautionary tale we should all be keeping an eye on.

3.  Meta rolls out another round of layoffs

In last week’s edition of The Week in Comms, we wrote about a decline in morale at Meta following employee backlash against a return-to-work mandate. Meta has now undertaken another round of layoffs, this time targeting the engineering teams in the name of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg called making 2023 “a year of efficiency”.

According to Reuters:

Layoffs were the subject of the most popular questions posted on an internal company forum on Wednesday ahead of an upcoming employee town hall.

“You’ve shattered the morale and confidence in leadership of many high performers who work with intensity. Why should we stay at Meta?” read one question seen by Reuters.

The question references comments Zuckerberg made last year urging employees to work with more “intensity” to meet the Facebook and Instagram parent company’s business challenges.

This round of layoffs comes after 11,000 staffers at Meta lost their jobs in the fall of 2022. Two things about Meta are becoming abundantly clear at the moment — morale at Meta is dropping like a rock in a pond, and frustration among employees is increasing. Zuckerbeg’s communication style with his employees clearly leaves a great deal to be desired, and he’s going to need to figure it out before even more Meta team members get fed up. Most importantly, the questions shared by Reuters bring up a good point—and language used in your executive communications should hold consistently in subsequent messages and company decisions, lest it is used against you. While words matter, and the actions that support or contradict them doubly so.

4 . How about some good news?

Have a great weekend comms all-stars!

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.

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