In a so-called post-truth world, inaccurate information, fake news and unreliable leadership have left employees unsure of what to believe. Sometimes the facts get in the way of the story we want to hear – or the story others want to tell us. Internal communication must work with leaders to provide solutions and messages employees can trust.



21st July 2020

Quiz, the 2020 TV mini-series about a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? contestant convicted of cheating his way to the top prize in 2001, brought into question what has seemed to be a near-conclusive truth for the best part of 20 years.

Major Charles Ingram was accused of winning £1 million by responding to strategic coughs by an audience member on the right answers. In court, his defence lawyer argued that the television production company had edited together a tape showing 19 significant coughs as evidence. The coughs could be clearly heard. It was a convincing argument.

However, for the jury’s benefit, the editor amplified the volume of the coughs and excluded 160 other instances where audience members had coughed at other times during the show. The tape presented only the parts of the story that fitted a specific objective. It was also noted that, during the show’s recording, production team members speculated among themselves, via headsets, about Ingram’s fishy behaviour. The one person who was not suspicious was quiz host Chris Tarrant, who was not using an earpiece and couldn’t hear his colleagues’ conversation.

It’s easy to get swept up in a compelling story – be it joyous or frustrating – and particularly if there’s consensus among your peers. It can be a lot of effort to dig around for confirmation. It sometimes suits us to bring some details to the foreground so that the picture suits a certain narrative. It makes for a good story.

In his TED Talk on what to trust in a post-truth world, London Business School professor Alex Edmans says, “We don’t share ordinary stories. They’re too ordinary. We ignore them.”

We believe what we want to believe. Our confirmation bias processes or points us to information that supports our own theories and disregards any contradiction. We are taken in by emotional stories that make us feel something – comfort, anger, betrayal – and we want to share them with someone else.

A post-data world

We don’t live in a post-truth world, but a post-data world, Edmans states. “We prefer a single story to tonnes of data. A single story is meaningless and misleading unless it’s backed up by large-scale data. But that might still not be enough.”

The brain responds, seemingly beyond our control, to the familiarity of a message. If you read a story or statement enough times, your brain will eventually register it as a fact, regardless of how well you know the sources. It’s as if your brain moves beyond any reasonable doubt in the story’s validity.

You might hope that the truth will out, and conquer misinformation or disinformation, but don’t bet on it. Responding to fake news may actually harm your brand, warned Robert Matney, Yonder’s MD of government affairs, during a recent Brandwatch seminar on misinformation.

“Much of our lives is a matter of opinion over fact. Human behaviour is driven by belief – consumers buy based on what they perceive to be true. Inserting truth in the face of misinformation may in fact spread visibility of the thing you are trying to correct.

“If you can make it trend, you can make it true.”

Directing the message

Our destinations for information have changed beyond recognition. David Berger, senior vice president, communications leader, at financial services company Wells Fargo, reflects: “At this point, with the multiplicity of comms, I don’t think any company believes it has the ability to control what employees say or think,” says David. “It’s gone way past that.”

All the same, David doesn’t subscribe to the phrase “post-truth world”.

“The truth is always there. People have to be willing to look for it and believe it.

“It can be hard to understand and communicate the truth and discern fact from fiction, but if we start saying we’re an IC function in a post-truth world, we’re buying in to the cynicism we’re trying to oppose.”

Lisa Hawksworth, lead consultant at consultancy scarlettabbott, believes the glut of channels has seen employees count on more traditional formats.

“Someone once told me they use the staff mag to check the water cooler chat,” she says. “People feel that print is the truth. Anything that happens or is said on an enterprise social network or in a face-to-face huddle can be misconstrued.”

Rumour has it

The office grapevine has long been an uninvited guest in the channel mix. If employees have been given reason to be sceptical of leaders’ words, they will heed the opinions of their peers. When rumours circulate, employees will ask those closest to them for the scoop.

It can be difficult to monitor and shut down workplace hearsay on social media and messaging apps. Internal comms should try embracing whatever channels are working effectively.

Leo Ryder, internal communications specialist with Gwent Police, says: “People don’t solely use those channels just because they’re cynical of other sources – they’re also convenient. Communication flows like water. It travels wherever it’s easiest to do so. In my previous job, sometimes a Yammer post would have more hits than an equivalent news story on the intranet homepage or a targeted email. It’s about how you use the message.”

Lisa agrees internal communicators must get the balance right between content from the organisation and that which circulates within. The latter requires community management. Identifying real issues in the working environment and culture will enable leaders and internal comms to talk authentically in a way that makes people listen and believe.

“There will always be water-cooler chats, but they’re now happening on digital channels, like Yammer and Workplace by Facebook, or chat areas on the intranet,” says Lisa. “Internal comms has an extra role beyond the day job of producing content. They need to understand what communities are saying in those forums. What are the problems people are talking about that internal comms needs to tackle?”

And where do they tackle them? The single source of truth in your company could be one channel or approach, or a combination of many, but you need to spell it out.

“It’s like the blue tick on Twitter,” says Lisa. “Make it really clear that internal comms is genuinely speaking on behalf of the company and that the information is verified.”

Shutting down misinformation

When information gets distorted in your network, it beds in deeply and is difficult to shift. If the story goes against what the organisation says it stands for, you can lose the trust you’ve spent years building. The way to manage it is to get in first with a credible message.

Robert says: “Early detection is key to misinformation or disinformation management. Those narratives start from agenda-driven groups and operate like well-coordinated marketing campaigns – and they are the type of conversations you need to listen to. From there, you can make meaningful predictions and build proactive reactions. Get to the earliest point of things spreading and head it off at the pass.”

Presenting a believable picture of the company is about making sure all the messages add up.

“I don’t think anyone has the power to change someone’s mind,” considers David. “Individuals are receiving information from so many inputs. You’re not going to break through with a single message and say everything else is wrong. You can only give people the right information – and they have a choice to believe what they want.”

But you can add legitimacy to your own channels by finding out what people are most interested in. “Base your content on that,” says David, “and hopefully the company’s actions match what you say.”

Keeping the faith

Corporate wrongdoing and organisations’ perceived inability has seen an increase in people confronting their employers – more protests, new movements, louder voices. If employees are forced to pursue the truth, their trust in what leaders are telling them erodes.

Wells Fargo is rebuilding trust after a 2016 scandal when it emerged that an aggressive sales culture had led branch employees to open accounts in the names of customers without authorisation. Four years later, the company is still operating under the regulators’ penalties.

David was brought in to help develop a comms plan that would make amends with employees and restore confidence. The leadership was overhauled, culminating in a new CEO from outside the company joining last year to, says David, “fix what was wrong and give the company a fresh start”.

For Wells Fargo, the fault was inherent in the culture. “It struck at the heart of what the company was about,” says David. “Trust took a dive from employees as they were affected by the aftermath. Former senior executives weren’t seen to have been held to account, and that was a further problem.

“The more employees hear about a situation like that, the more they are going to lose faith. When the culture you have been working under for years is suddenly seen by the public as a negative, employees will look at everything you create with a jaundiced eye.”

David joined Wells Fargo in 2018 and put together an audience-focused strategy intended to remind employees of the important work being done to change the company. He recruited credible journalists for their strong writing and reporting skills and created an accessible house style, so that employees wouldn’t “read our content and say it was merely PR”.

“We created content that would resonate. It was the hard, meaty stuff affecting employees. We needed to hear much more than just that Wells Fargo had donated another $15,000 to another charity. We wanted to take a neutral tone so that people trusted the content. The focus was to shift away from where we were to the change that’s happening inside the company.”

Psychological safety first

While leaders’ misbehaviour is always going to shake an organisation’s foundations, many can retain their employees’ confidence during other crises if the foundations are strong to begin with. Deborah Hulme, director and neuroleadership specialist at Minerva Engagement warns that businesses must sow the seeds of trust early.

“If you want to build a sustainable, robust organisation, the purpose and values you talk about in the good times need to be strong, and leaders need to buy in to those and understand what they mean – and are held to account if they go against them.

“If you can build a belief system, and the habits that sit around those beliefs, your people will hang on when it gets chaotic.”

Engendering psychological safety builds long-lasting trust and it involves giving people the benefit of the doubt and treating them well.

“It’s about standing by your word and doing right by me,” says Deborah. “It’s about supporting and coaching me if I make a genuine error of judgment.

“And if you’ve spent years looking after me and my colleagues and you’ve explained why I matter, and if leaders have been behaving in a way that brings it all to life, then when we’re in a mess and I don’t know if I’ve got a job or how I will look after my children or pay the mortgage, the only things I can hold on to are the purpose and values you’ve been telling me for years.”

Psychological safety should not flourish to the detriment of performance. Conversely, studies from Gallup, Google and numerous other recognised sources have found psychological safety to be a critical factor and the one common denominator among high-performance teams. 

“It’s about managing the will – the hearts and minds, and how you make people feel; and the way – the structures and processes,” says Deborah.

They are two halves of the contract employees signed up to. One without the other will break the trust bond.

“If you have high way, your standards are good and you push people to deliver, but your team has low psychological safety and they are frightened to speak up. You have a stressed and anxious organisation. But if you have high will and everyone is engaged, but governance and standards are poor, you have a low-performing organisation.

“To be successful, you need good management and leadership, but bring into play your emotional and social intelligence to get the best out of people and make them feel safe.”

Confidence in uncertain times

Trust sprouts from the collective mindset and behaviours of all those who lead teams – supervisors, managers and leaders – and never more so than in a crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic turned everything employees have come to depend on upside down. With their words, leaders and internal communicators could either rise to the occasion or add to the uncertainty. People desperately needed clarity. Alongside official health authorities, such as the NHS, internal comms and leaders have been the go-to source of information for employees.

In a crisis, picking the right messenger and having continuity in how guidance and updates are delivered is critical. If an update comes from the designated driver of information, it must be correct.

Wells Fargo appointed a specific leader as the face of the company’s response to Covid-19. The person at the wheel was COO Scott Powell.

David explains: “Scott oversees the emergency incident group and so it made sense for him to lead. He’s been communicating a lot, and that approach has worked out well. Charlie Scharf, our CEO, covers the macro picture, but these are deeply operational issues at play so the COO is the right person for the day-to-day.

“Employees have a great capacity to absorb a tremendous amount of information when it’s of value. It was essential to coordinate that information and speak with a single voice. That was one of the most important decisions we made. If it had gone wrong, it would have been hard to walk it back.”

In with empathy, out with BS

One of the positive results from IoIC’s April 2020 survey on how internal communicators have managed during the crisis was that IC practitioners believe, overwhelmingly, their response throughout has improved trust in both internal comms and leaders.

The business concerns of leaders may have been different to those of frontline staff, but everyone faced the same health unease. Leaders spoke with empathy and authenticity. It was not the time for corporate BS.

The Covid-19 crisis has been an opportunity for communicators to help leaders “put on a new coat”, says Deborah.

“It’s been a period where the distinction between a manager and a leader has been stark. To get us past this and into the new world, leaders need appropriate skills – to understand human behaviour, and to know how to coach and give space, rather than leaning over individuals’ shoulders and telling them when to do things.”

Speak for yourself

When leaders drop their guard and speak as one human to another, rather than as the head of a business, they create an affinity. They become more likeable and trustworthy.

What you read needs to be what you hear, says Lisa.

“A leader’s authentic style might not be appropriate in a business context, but you still have to balance how you position them from jovial to serious.

“If I speak to a leader in person – if I bump into them in a lift – and their language is at odds with what they’ve said in writing, it casts doubt on those formal messages. The two experiences need to feel the same.”

Internal communicators must get to know the person they are writing for inside out. Where would they go into detail? What are they less concerned about?

“Some leaders are introverted,” says Lisa. “You can’t write for one in a super chatty tone if that person is actually very quiet, or position another as someone who will tell you all about their weekend, when they are serious about numbers. Get your leaders to present their true personalities.”

Staying in touch with employees

People won’t believe the strategy if it feels like empty words – delivered in the same corporate monotone as everything else. Internal communicators are the eyes and ears of the organisation and need to keep leaders in touch with employee sentiment, so that together they shape messages that will build understanding and engagement.

Leo says: “If it feels like the behaviours and perceptions of leaders don’t represent employees, that’s where effective internal comms can help build trust – not as a corporate mouthpiece, but in using its power to advise. If communication doesn’t ring true to the company’s ethical values or ask the difficult questions that employees are already asking, the level of trust gets worse.”

Deborah says: “If it comes out of the centre, it’s often written in a ‘catch all’ tone. If I am on the front line and have a question about a business decision, I will go to my manager. And if my manager doesn’t believe it, he or she is going to say, ‘Forget about it, it’ll be over in a few months.’

“Sometimes, leaders forget they have spent 18 months formulating a strategy, and they get impatient about communicating it.”

Internal comms has a responsibility to hold a mirror up to leaders and slow down how they communicate. You can’t expect people to accept and trust in a vision simply by telling them about it.

“People don’t understand what they need to do if they can’t work out what it means for them,” says Deborah. “Communicators have to advise leadership around explaining the strategy in a way that helps people make connections themselves, so the energy is with them to bring it to life.”

Emotions taking us over

We are more likely to be drawn in by information that makes us feel something than by cold hard facts and data. Content needs empathy and passion.

“Emotions will come to the fore over the next few years, to drive feeling,” says Deborah. “When emotions connect with values and mindset, we have something powerful. It’s weak when one is not working.”

It’s easy to talk a good emotional game when you are future-gazing around the corporate vision. You want to motivate people with ambitious targets and excite them with the journey to get there. But when you are relying on people to take your word for it and follow you in the long-term, add substance to your short-term commitments.

“Do you want to talk about promise or proof?” asks Lisa. “Just promising you’ll do something is ticking boxes. You can say, ‘Oh yes, we support Pride’ or ‘We are sustainable’, but people want the real story. Show where you do it. Invite your LGBTQ colleagues to say what they find tough and how the company is helping them. The proof points to something that generates belief.

“Organisations want people to think of them in a certain way, but internal comms is in a position to surface those stories and look at why you are doing it and what you have already done. That’s what quickly turns knowledge into belief.”

The full version of this feature can be read in the July 2020 issue of Voice.

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