What we say vs what we do – the authenticity gap

employee engagement, internal communications / Friday, October 12th, 2018

Do your internal communications say, or do? Do they tell or show?

As internal communicators, we all know that it’s vital to be consistent with our messaging… But engaging people goes beyond that. It’s not enough to simply say the ‘right’ things – we have to demonstrate the right behaviours. Our entire organisations have to be what we want our people to be, otherwise we risk coming across as out of touch, fake, and untrustworthy.

For example:

  • It’s not enough for organisations to talk about being diverse and inclusive if their senior management teams are predominantly white men.
  • It’s not enough for us to talk about the organisation’s values. To be authentic, they have to be demonstrated in everything that we – as a business – do, as well as what we say.
  • It’s not enough to simply rely on the correct policies and procedures, we have to make sure that they are informing and changing behaviours at every level of the organisation.

Authenticity comes from the alignment of the things we say with the things we do. The actions that we take have to be honest and driven by the values that we want our people to practice. This is a vital part of organisational culture – to practice the values we espouse and demonstrate them in every interaction we have both within and outside the organisation.

The people within the organisation best placed to demonstrate and put the values in practice are our leaders. They’re more than the visible champions for our organisation and its culture – leaders shape (either purposely or indirectly) the culture of the organisation. They are in a powerful position to lead by example, showing all that is best about belonging to the organisation. But, their behaviour can also undermine the most well-meaning of values.

Imagine you’re a senior manager within X-Co. X-Co has decided to focus on improving work-life balance amongst its employees, with a push to make sure everyone takes their annual leave entitlement each year. They also want to discourage employees from checking emails and working whilst they are meant to be on leave. As a senior manager, you have to support this initiative (which has included a comprehensive internal communications campaign to all staff). But, when it’s time for your holidays, you’re in constant contact with your team (about day-to-day business matters) from the pool-side. What does this say to your team? It’s a classic case of ‘do what I say, not what I do’ and undermines the business-wide message.

Before our leaders can exemplify them, the organisation first needs to have meaningful values – those core behaviours and beliefs that are relevant to everyone across the organisation. You can read some examples (190, to be precise) of company values here. But what they all have in common is their relative simplicity. They are written in clear and brief language – no jargon or buzzwords here – and can be applied across all areas of the company, and at all levels of seniority. They use collective words (we, us, together) to build that sense of shared effort and collaboration. They also set out what they expect from the people working for the company.

In internal communication practice, “…without first establishing the key values of the organisation you will be simply reacting and responding to circumstances rather than shaping them.”

(Effective Internal Communication, Lyn Smith with Pamela Mounter, 2008 p. 129)

Establishing and maintaining a focus on your organisational values is not easy, particularly given the competing priorities and urgencies of day-to-day business. However, embedding organisational values in everything the business does will benefit both the organisation and its people. Values are an integral part of an organisational culture, they help to create shared understanding and priorities. They also help to create a sense of community within the organisation, where we all do things with the same intent. I think that having strongly embedded values can help to cushion our people through periods of change, crises, or other upheavals. They know the behaviours to expect from senior management – whose consistent modelling of the values helps to create a sense of comfort and continuity in the face of change.

I think the consistency between values and practice not only endows the organisation’s communications with a sense of authenticity, it also makes it easier for our people to engage with the organisation. It develops an understanding of what it means to be a member of the workforce, what it means to work here, and what we as a community of people prioritise.

What do you think? Is the authenticity gap a consideration in your internal communications practice? How far does your organisation practice what it preaches? Share your thoughts in the comments field below or tweet me with your experience!

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