The last time it struck, gloom took over the halls of corporatedom. People moved slower than usual. They slouched deeper in their chairs. They talked to themselves. They started meetings late to avoid getting down to business, to avoid getting that much closer to something terrible, something that smells like death.
Almost a decade ago, the great recession holds lessons for us today, as we face the prospect of something similar.
As it took hold, people stopped looking each other in the eye. They were afraid of eyes that spoke the ugly truth that, despite all efforts to become a part of something, part of a group, a team, a reason, each person was, in the end, alone. It’s in those eyes that you could see the grim fact that not only were some of these friends and drinking buddies and occasional confidants going to be tossed overboard, but that none of us was likely to jump in to save them.
For us communicators, this grim truth that we face is even worse: When things start crashing down, we have to come to terms with the fact that we are not only the occasional victims but the ongoing perpetrators of this illusion of community and common cause that can withstand all challenges. We are the purveyors of brands and identities, the spinners of engagement, the builders of “line of sight”, the enablers of collaboration, the sowers of the seeds of community.
Communicator: S/he who creates the illusion of community; the great conspirator; the teller of the lie that others care. And now the myth is unravelling.
Is there something we can learn from this encounter with our own tales? Something that might actually make us better communicators? Can we do something more than churn sorry-pal messages that say either that the boat’s too full so overboard you must go or, to those left behind, that yes you’ll have to pull on two oars instead of one and yes this boat’s gotta move faster but hell don’t forget that we threw your pal a life jacket and crackers and well, at least you’re not wet. Looking at our colleagues, might we see something other than opportunities to build engagement and foster productivity and enhance innovation? Might we actually try to see eyes? Eyes of people? People whose most pressing concerns might just lie elsewhere?
So some communications lessons learned from a downturn:
1. Communities depend on a sense of belonging, of sharing. (From L. communis “in common, public, general, shared by all or many”.) This binding through sharing takes more than mission statements and core values and strategic goals and brand positioning. It takes a sense of interdependence – a feeling that each member’s fate of one is somehow bound up with that of the other. So how about less of “the company needs you” and more of “we all need each other and together we can help”?
2. People’s real concerns, the ones that drive them to make decisions about their lives and values, lie outside of corporate agendas. Speak to those concerns. Respect them. Allow for them. No one’s going to become more honest or show more integrity because big company puts in on a plaque. And no one’s going to be more loyal to big company than they are to stocking the larder and loving their families.
3. The exuberance with which people participate in online chatter shows that they have a need to express themselves, to say who they are. As communicators, help them talk, as much as possible. Build social spaces. Break down obstacles. Promote and encourage dialogue. Eliminate restrictions. Let them say ANYTHING. Don’t moderate. Don’t censor. Don’t sermonize. Speak when you’re spoken to. Take a back seat. Answer questions. Be human.