Why authenticity is internal communications’ biggest challenge

Maintaining trust in top leaders is essential to improve employee engagement. Candor is crucial, if not always the smoothest route. Here’s how communications can be more authentic.

What’s your greatest challenge as an internal communicator?

Surveys often ask that very question. Year after year, people offer familiar responses:

  • Line managers’ ability to communicate is often near the top of the list, especially because it’s rare that the internal comms team handles line manager training.
  • Then there’s always the push to do more with less and our ability to measure our effectiveness. Many of us are still measuring outputs (e.g., how many people clicked on my email?) rather than outcomes (e.g., have we achieved what we set out to do?).

These are real challenges we face, yet those overlook our biggest challenge: maintaining authenticity in a world of spin.

How do we define it?

Authentic means “genuine,” “real” and “not false” and has the synonyms “authoritative,” “convincing” and “credible.” For internal communications to positively affect employee engagement, it must be authentic. Employees instantly detect “spin”; they see right through it.

We’re hardwired to cast a good light on ourselves and those with whom we identify. Our leaders and, often, internal communicators shy away from sharing bad news, so they communicate in a way that rings hollow. We polish negative situations even though we know employees will see straight through it.

If it’s so important and yet so hard to do, how can we communicate in an authentic way? Here are some thoughts:

1. Change your shoes.

An ex-colleague frequently reminded me who our main stakeholders are: not the CEO or director you work for, not the head of corporate communications, HR or marketing, but the employees. That’s why we’re here: to communicate with and engage with them. So it’s important to be putting our feet into their shoes, seeing things from their perspective. A helpful way to do this is to speak to different members of diverse audiences, using the resulting insights in our content creation and reflecting the views of employees to our senior leaders.

2. Remember we’re not marketers.

Boundaries between internal and external comms have been blurring over the last decade, partly due to the growth of social media and the role of employees as external communicators. That doesn’t mean external and internal comms have the same purpose. Ultimately, marketers are trying to sell people something, whether it’s a brand promise, a product or service.

However, internal communicators are aiming (arguably) to improve employee engagement, which will result in better performing employees and a better performing business. The implication is that we must not “PR” our workforce, but rather trust them, seeing each employee as “one of us” rather than “one of them.”

There will be things that can’t be shared with employees (especially in publicly traded companies), so just be honest about those distinctions. Trust employees to make good decisions with what they do and don’t share, and trust that social media policies will have provisions for dealing with those few who don’t.

3. Be the voice of reason for senior leaders.

We should have a sense of who our employees are and how they’ll react to communications of all kinds. Internal comms team leaders and business partners should develop a robustness (mixed with humility, which has been shown to be a top leadership characteristic) enabling them to oppose leaders’ gut reactions as needed.

Leaders might want to sugarcoat negative messages at times. It’s up to us to persuade them to communicate candidly, so that authenticity isn’t undermined. We won’t always be successful, but it’s OK not to win every battle.

While we face many challenges as internal communicators, let’s face up to our biggest challenge—to be an authentic voice in a world of spin.

Matthew Morgan is an internal communications business partner at Vodafone. A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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