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Chapter 4: Leadership Communications Planning


The truth is it is almost impossible to kill a great brand, and marketers and agencies have to remember that. . . . The compulsion to change is often the wrong route. What they should do is accept who they are, and then express that in a meaningful and relevant way.

Shelly Lazarus
Conor Dignam, "Stormy Reign for Queen of the Blue-Chip Brands"

The new performance evaluation system was not going over well. In fact, the new appraisal process was met with outright hostility—if hallway conversations were any indication, most managers were refusing to use it at all. The director of human resources was beside herself. This new appraisal system, which was designed to be easier to use as well as more comprehensive and more equitable, seemed destined to be dead on arrival. Although the new system was designed to be used online and replace the old paper-and-pencil form, managers were very suspicious. Employees, who were encouraged to write self-appraisals and set forth new performance objectives, were leery, too. Their fear seemed to be twofold: first, lack of privacy, and second, how they were supposed to evaluate themselves. They feared that if they graded themselves too high, they might seem shallow, whereas if they graded themselves too low, they might get stuck with a poor review that would affect their compensation and their eligibility for promotion. As a result, the entire system, which cost $2 million to implement, was in danger of being written off. Worse, employee morale was sinking. Refrains of "Big Brother is watching" echoed in the hallways.

Unfortunately, this situation is all too common. Whether the subject is performance evaluations, new project guidelines, or new policies governing overtime, the underlying principle is the same: The new initiative represents change, and people do not like change unless it is explained properly and put into the context of the organization.

The reason for the failure of this new performance evaluation system was not the system itself. It was the way in which it was introduced—or, frankly, not introduced. While a huge investment was made in the development of the system, little or no attention was paid to communicating the system to managers and employees. Rather, it simply appeared, as if from on high. The HR director was so involved with developing the application and the benefits of using it that she and her leadership team simply forgot to introduce it properly.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to throw stones and accuse the HR director of being myopic and not in touch with the reality of the situation, but the fact is that organizations often institute change initiatives, big and small, without so much as a second thought about communicating them. Leaders seem to assume that whatever they introduce will be accepted. Months later, when the initiative fails, they wonder why. They tend to blame the initiative itself, when all too often it was simply the failure to communicate it properly. As a result, a great deal of time, money, and good ideas is wasted. Worse, the whole cycle is repeated when organizations seek to refine or redesign an initiative that probably would be good, if only it were explained properly.

Leadership communications plays a vanguard role in communicating change as well as in reinforcing organizational culture. Planning communications in advance is essential to developing a leadership message that is consistent with the culture, finding ways to communicate change, and ensuring continued credibility. Noted commentator and consultant on change Rosabeth Moss Kanter places a heavy emphasis on the role that communications plays in keeping a culture unified as well as helping to keep it together during a transformational effort.

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