The battle for attention

If there is a parallel between business and politics, it is about the ability to win the narrative argument. In many ways, we are running constant campaign within our organisations seeking to win over new supporters and retain those that we have. And in business, like politics, we often make this whole process sound harder than it is. In essence, it boils down to a few core approaches.

  • Clear and simple – if you want people to buy into your organisational vision, then you need to keep it clear and simple. It needs to make sense to others and not just to those that came up with it. The vast majority of people, whether they’re consumers or employees, aren’t going to spend hours and hours trying to diagnose your messaging they need it delivered to them on a plate. It doesn’t matter whether that’s your overall vision, or one of a change programme or piece of work. Same rules apply, always,
  • Listen to feedback – people will tell you if you’ve got it wrong, listen to them. The instinctive reaction is to justify, to tell people that they’re a little bit stupid for not understanding, to tell them that it is all really clear and written down. But if they’ve haven’t understood it, then whose fault is that really? How many change programmes or product launches have died because the message simply didn’t resonate. I guarantee the telltale signs were there way before.
  • Don’t drink the Kool Aid – or perhaps, more importantly, if you have then step out of the way. The problem with the converted is they only see the benefits, they are by definition biased and therefore they won’t be able to understand the pitfalls. If everyone on the team thinks the plan is “the best idea ever”, then you’ve got a problem. Hire someone who sees the downsides and listen to them.
  • Appeal to the right thing – Sometimes people don’t “get you” and sometimes they don’t “feel you”, recognising which one you’re up against and tailoring your messaging is key. Have a think about the consumer brands you love the most, whether it is a product, a service or an experience. My guess is that you’ll be able to explain why it works for you, but you’ll also be able to explain how it makes you feel. Do people understand why what you’re doing makes sense and do they feel it will make things better for them?
  • Campaign every day – ok so we’re not running an election here, but the principle is exactly the same. There will always be other narratives at play, either inside your organisation or outside, telling people messages that might contradict with the ones you want to get across. As it was put to me a number of years ago, “every day you don’t land your narrative, someone else does”. It really is that simple.

You don’t need to be “HR correct”

I’ve written many times before about our love for a good fad in the world of management. Nothing appeals more than the chance to relaunch something of old under a new moniker and pretend that this version makes you faster, better, more competitive and more appealing to employees.

There is absolutely no doubt that language matters at work, but so does intent. Perhaps even more. The reality is that we already have a whole lexicon of terms that, from a purely linguistic perspective, are hardly appealing:

Redundant. Disciplinary. Grievance. Outplacement.

We will happily use these in our everyday work whilst at the same time mocking other people’s intent to soften the tone. And of course, if we are simply changing a label in order to improve perception then that is style over substance, but if we are doing it in order to help reposition how we do things, does that really matter? If talking about on boarding makes us focus more on the period of time between a hire being made and an employee starting, should we really care?

Debating labels can all be a little bit “HR correct” and ultimately adds little value to the way in which employees and candidates experience our organisations. Let their experience be the judge of our practice, they’re better placed to sense the authenticity and reality of our work, not social media bubbles.

If practitioners are genuinely striving to improve the work place then the language will be accepted, if not it will be rejected as insincere. After all, who in the UK can honestly tell me that they used the term furlough 6 months ago? Yeah, I thought not.

Dumb luck and bias

Many years ago I was sat in a room with a number of senior politicians and business people discussing the challenge of improving social mobility. One of the advisors to the then coalition government made a point that has resonated with me for years, partly because of its obvious nature, but also because the infrequency of which it is made.

If you want some people to go up, by definition others need to go down. Which means the people that make the argument for change need to support the personal impact of their children potentially doing less well as a result.

I appreciate that there are some that will argue that there are ways and means by which this can be overcome on a macro level, however, for the sake of this argument I’m going to remain in the pragmatic rather than the idealistic.

This is a simple, but very compelling truth. In a system that is rigged in the favour of certain groups within society, change inevitably means the risk of them doing less well – which is one reason why it is incredibly hard to deliver. Because it means accepting that we might not have achieved what we have because of merit, but instead because of who we are.

At this point we all awkwardly look at one another and suggest the least competent in the room as perhaps the one that doesn’t deserve to be there, because it can’t be us, can it?

I’ve written so many times about how education is not a meritocracy. But there is also so much evidence that demographic factors and our social background influences our path throughout our lives. Add to this the random and untested nature of most recruitment and selection processes and you are more likely to be where you are because of dumb luck and bias than you are because of inherent talent.

If we want change, if we believe in change, then it means we have to accept that there will be losers as well as winners. For some of us, our children and grandchildren might need to accept places in schools, colleges or universities that we would previously never have considered. They may prosper less in the workplace, the housing market and in society as a whole. We have to look beyond personal self interest and to society as a whole.

And before you nod and walk away contently, remember that this isn’t just a small faceless elite sitting at the top of the pile, it applies to you, me and large swathes of corporate Britain too.

Here’s some things we can all do

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks talking about the societal impacts of the pandemic, the way in which it risks increasing injustice and widening the already significant gaps that prevent social mobility. And more than ever, organisations need to step into the breach and make real meaningful interventions and sustainable changes to the way in which they do business.

Whilst many of the changes are going to require substantial changes to our education system, our economy and our industrial policy. There are also practical steps that each and everyone of us can take.

  1. Stop asking for educational qualifications. This summer, for the fist time in living memory, hundreds of thousands of young people will leave school without having taken a single final exam – not to mention those that are graduating at the same time. The rest of the school system has been put on hold, risking significant disparity between different social groups. If you haven’t removed qualifications from your recruitment process already, now is the moment to do so.
  2. Invest in apprenticeships and retraining schemes. As people start to lose their jobs as sectors contract and the economy changes, we will need to create opportunities to retrain and re-skill. Where we’ve struggled to attract, to fill positions or to build succession. Now is the time to think about the opportunities to solve those problems  and provide good quality career prospects for people needing work.
  3. Think more broadly than working from home. There’s understandably been a lot of talk about flexible working, agile working, remote working and everything that we’ve learnt. Whilst of course we have some fantastic data and evidence, let’s not forget that not every one can work from home. And moreover, lots of jobs are based around people working in offices. Let’s think about all jobs when we’re making our plans.
  4. Engage with schools and colleges. When schools get back and running we need to double up our efforts to support them and build skills and confidence back into young people. Looking at how we can work better together as organisations, how we can reach those schools that need support the most and we can support the charities and organisation that act as intermediaries that will have struggled during this period of time. We need to create hope, as much as we do jobs.
  5. Consider jobs as well as technology. If there is one thing that we’ve learnt over the past few weeks is that we are better when people and technology come together, where they’re additive and not replacements of one another. Decisions that replace jobs with technology, without addressing the societal consequences will come back to bite us sooner or later.
  6. Be open to all, not just those you know. I’ve seen a number of people offering help to their connections either online or in person. Whilst well intentioned and well meaning, the problem is this only helps people you’re connected too. And we know one of the biggest challenges in terms of closing the social divide comes in the collateral that comes from personal relationships. It is no different to offering jobs or internships to your friends – find organisations and charities that will help you translate your offer to a wider group based on need.