The Public Relations Strategist

Communicating With Integrity Helps Organizations Endure Change

October 26, 2017

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We’re winding down a year that has brought unprecedented shifts in leadership, policies, globalization and technology. Fundamental changes are affecting organizations in every sector. 

Whether changes are welcome or not, the antidote to the upheaval they cause is communication. Along with trust, communication is critical for successful change. Studies show that realistic, supportive, effective communication during change is associated with greater support for the change and those leading it, lower levels of anxiety and uncertainty, higher trust and more efficient operations.

Employees often don’t trust management, and many people don’t trust organizations, as the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found

Today’s unstable, distrustful and emotional environment calls for a different type of communication — one that’s more sensitive, targeted, engaging and strategic. Such communication goes beyond transparency and authenticity. Via targeted channels, it interacts with internal and external stakeholders through compelling dialogue. Among organizations and their leaders, open communication informs behaviors that people recognize as aligned with values and brand promises.

I believe we are now in the era of communication through integrity. Integrity aligns what you say and do with your values, and with your brand and corporate promises.

How is integrity-rich communication fostered? It starts by knowing your values through a deliberate system of two-way, open dialogue, wherein leaders seek feedback and receive it through active listening, and then by aligning organizational behaviors with those values and never wavering.

The importance of values

Values, the internal qualities you wish to be known for externally, form the foundation of your organization and reflect the essence of who you are. Values affect how you operate, market, sell, deal with customers and regulations, communicate and achieve results. People know your values by your actions — how you spend money and time, the issues you stand up for and stay silent on, your standards of employee conduct and product quality, and your commitment to local communities.

Knowing, understanding and honoring your organizational values are vital to communicating with integrity.

The importance of self-awareness

To operate and communicate with integrity, leaders and organizations have to be self-aware. This is an area most of us need to develop; we all have blind spots about how others see us. In the 1950s, American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham created a model to help people see how their self-awareness matched the perceptions of others. Called the Johari Window, it represents feelings, experiences, views, attitudes, skills, intentions and motivations from four perspectives: open, hidden, blind and unknown.

From an open perspective, people recognize us for the things we know about ourselves. We move within this area with freedom and ease, comfortable that our actions and words align with what people expect from us.

A hidden perspective, on the other hand, contains things that we know about ourselves but usually don’t share. In a blind perspective, we think we possess certain qualities and behaviors, but others don’t see them. An unknown perspective represents characteristics of ourselves that we don’t even realize exist, nor do others. Such hidden traits don’t pose problems unless they emerge in other areas.
To be self-aware, we must move qualities from hidden and blind quadrants into known ones. The difficulty is that people are unlikely to give leaders overt and proactive feedback about their behaviors. As organizations, it’s hard to know exactly how stakeholders perceive us.

To discover things we don’t know about ourselves, we can engage in a trusting, open and humble practice of seeking information from others who know us. The skills related to asking for and receiving feedback through active listening are essential for strong leadership and communication, especially during times of change. 

The importance of varied feedback

For leadership and other internal and external stakeholders, employees can be a primary source of feedback. They know whether you’re behaving with integrity — which means being unified in word and deed from the inside out, regardless of the angle from which you’re scrutinized. 

To make feedback part of your organization’s culture, build it into your formal structures and everyday conversations. Ask for opinions and reactions about presentations, meetings and other observable events. Keep your exchanges casual to encourage honest assessments, openness and trust. Be generous by providing feedback to others, too. Ask for their permission first, and then deliver your feedback constructively and positively. More formally, feedback can be woven into regular meetings with bosses and direct reports, and should already be part of HR systems such as performance reviews.

For a balanced and diverse view, ask a varied audience for feedback, not just people you work with closely or know well. Seek feedback from fans, critics, superiors, direct reports and frontline workers — anyone who has observed you communicating or taking actions aligned with your values.

The more specific and direct the feedback, the richer the insights it will yield. You might ask, “What do you think I need to do to gain the trust of my team?” or “I’m concerned about the low attendance at our employee value-proposition rollout meeting — can you help me understand the reasons for it?”

As responses come in, resist the urge to defend yourself. If you need clarity, say, “Please help me understand.” Thank those who give you feedback.

The art of active listening

Listening is the most important aspect of communication and a direct route to gaining trust as a leader. Effective listening is active and requires comprehending and retaining what the speaker is saying — and then responding based not just on hearing the person’s words but on observing their body language, facial expressions, tone and pitch of voice, eye contact and stance. An active listener indicates that they hear and understand what someone is saying, intellectually and emotionally.

To listen actively, put aside papers, electronic devices and distractions. Face the speaker and maintain eye contact. If you are unsure about being direct, then try to at least position yourself so you’re looking at the speaker.

Be attentive, relaxed and focused. Mentally screen out distractions such as background activity and noise, the speaker’s accent or speech mannerisms, and your own thoughts, feelings and biases.

Watch for nonverbal cues. Studies show that only 7 percent of a message is verbal, while 38 percent is vocal (relating to tone, pitch, tense, etc.). Fifty-five percent of a message is nonverbal. You can learn almost as much about a person from the tone and cadence of their voice as from the words they say.

To listen actively, keep an open mind. Listen without judging or jumping to conclusions, both of which will cause you to stop listening. Create a mental model of what you’re hearing from the speaker, whether a literal picture or an arrangement of abstract concepts. If you stay focused and alert, then your brain will do the necessary work. Think only about what the other person is saying — don’t plan what you’re going to say next.

Empathy is the heart and soul of good listening. Your effectiveness as a listener is assured when you mirror the emotions the speaker is expressing, using empathic phrases like, “You must be thrilled!” or “I can see why you’re confused; I would be, too.” Nod and show your understanding through facial expressions and audible signs of attention.

Don’t try to rush the conversation by interrupting and finishing the other person’s sentences. Just keep listening until the speaker pauses. Then you can let him or her know you’ve been listening by saying something like, “Here’s what I hear you saying … is that right?” At the end of the conversation, summarize what you’ve heard and ask for any necessary clarification or correction. Then, summarize again until you and the speaker/listener agree about what’s been said.

Active listening requires matching your pace with that of your speaker/listener. Everyone thinks and speaks at different rates. If you’re a quick thinker and an agile talker, relax your pace for the slower, thoughtful communicator.

When listening to someone talk about a problem, refrain from suggesting solutions unless they ask. Stay on track. If something the other person says sparks a thought, then hold it until later. Stay in the moment so the speaker can focus and make his or her points.

Change is here to stay. But an organization that communicates with integrity can withstand even the most turbulent conditions and remain in charge of its own destiny. 
 

Jaya Koilpillai Bohlmann, APR, M.A.

Jaya Bohlmann, APR, M.A., is an experienced communicator, business leader, coach, author and thought leader. Her current book, “This Changes Everything: Transforming Your Life From the Inside Out,” shares her proprietary five-stage model.

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