Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rumor Control

Axiom: if you don't control the message, it will be controlled by the rest of the organization. This also is true for communicating the vision of the company.

Recently, I talked with the CEO of a small business who had to announce a two-week furlough of the employees. She announced it less than 2 weeks before it was to take place. As I understand it from the conversations surrounding this event, she only discussed it with the employees once.

Since I know that it can take repeated conversations and explanations to help people understand that revenues does not equal profits, I could have predicted that a message communicated once is going to lead to all kinds of rumors. I would predict that the employees, like people who receive bad news from the doctor, stopped listening after the first sentence or two as they tried to figure out what the implications were for their future. They would have missed all the presentation about the why's, wherefore's, future expectations, and so on.

The rumors started right after that meeting. Employees spread the news that the company was closing in September. The local newspaper editor called the CEO to confirm it. She denied it. However, she seemed to also ignore the rumors were still swirling around. A few months after the incident, unaware of any connection that I would have had with the CEO, an acquaintance asked me about the news that the company was closing that very month.

Because of the listening phenomenon (or rather the stop-listening phenomenon), and that individuals will be motivated by different incentives to take action, any message that wants the group to attain a certain attitude or change behaviors needs to be presented in different ways. The venue needs to change: some company-wide meetings, some small groups (like department meetings or "water cooler" gatherings), some individual conversations, newsletter or intranet blog articles, etc. The reasons for any change or vision need to be explained in a variety of messages:

financial (utilitarian/economic),
theoretical (knowledge, data-based),
individualistic/political-orientation (power),
aesthetic (making the world harmonious, creativity-based), or
traditional/regulatory (maintaining corporate traditions, how the change/vision supports the legacy or the currently accepted course of action).

Messages need to touch, to some extent, all of these motivational dimensions. They need to be frequent and timely. There's also the principle of spaced-repetition that allows people to adopt the knowledge. The space gives them some time to stew on it, chew on it and brew the implications for them. The repetition allows them to hear it often and make sure they heard the whole message.

When one company became employee-owned, some employees thought they were being taken advantage of. After several conversations explaining the trust plan, and that it did not require any money from their pockets, and how it created the chance for a very large benefit, the rumblings of discontent died off. Simlarly, when we disbanded a perfect attendance program, and expanded the benefits to automatically include additional days-off, some thought they were "being screwed." Again, several conversations in different venues and forms convinced them that they were actually being better rewarded with the change.

When I left one company, I consistently and frequently stated the reasons for leaving. I talked about what the future was going to be. Early on, there had been rumors about why I had left and where I was going. I was able to deny those rumors and quietly quelled them with repeated group and individual conversations--inside and outside the company. (I think I've been successful. My reputation is still intact, and my image is exactly what I wanted it to be. I've not heard any "ugly rumors" floating about the industry or the local community.) Another time, when a factory was shut down while under my leadership, I was able to get the message in the community why it happened. Initially some rumors had placed the blame on me. However, I was able to give the message that the plant was doing well financially and had high morale. I was able to describe that the key reason was a consolidation of facilities.

In a bit of what-if...what if the Democrats had been able to control the message that the economy was recovering through job growth and consumer spending this year? Might they have controlled the election?

Similarly, we need to control the message in our organizations so that the vision is not corrupted. We need to describe at multiple times and in multiple formats (a variety of media, settings and message themes) what we want the organization to achieve or to adopt a change. Keep talking, leaders. It's really hard to over-communicate. It's been said often: "the best defense is a good offense." Rumor control is no different.

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