Archive for the ‘Internal Politics’ Category

As I prepare to once again teach a graduate seminar in integrated marketing communication I am reminded of my ongoing challenge to make sure that these advanced students go out into our profession fully prepared to be “proactive” professionals.

In the past, many of my graduate students come to my seminars from jobs where they are assumed to be reactive tactics experts. Managers come to them when they want to get out a press release, or need a new brochure, or want to produce a video, or promote a special event. New communication  practitioners find themselves in the role of taking orders for products.They constantly hear: “Here is what I want, when can I have it.”

My challenge always is to show my students the potential for being able to counsel managers, and eventually senior executives, about new and powerful possibilities. Indeed, experienced thinkers in our profession have the power through strategic communication tools and integrated marketing processes to literally transform organizations with their planning advice. I must show them how this works, but then also teach them the political skills essential for getting themselves in a position to function on this higher level.

The implementation steps are really simple: (1) Clarify the organization’s competitive advantage, usually referred to as “big idea” or unique brand identity. (2) Use ongoing group processes to get a critical mass of internal managers and staff “on the same page” with regard to this positioning messaging. (3) Use multi-platform communication tactics simultaneously, and select them based on researched media preference of each target market. (4) Influence management presentations by preparing talking points and offering speechwriting services. (5) And focus on high visibility initiatives, based on immediate opportunities, and implemented using carefully formed action teams.

With this understanding of the power of the profession mastered, the challenge now becomes how to use political savvy and strategies to get into a position of being able to use what we know. This involves having a “teaching plan” in mind  to help others understand our potential. It also involves imagining how to accomplish this “teaching” one step at a time– in one-on-one interviews, in regular meetings, and in other groups we can form for this purpose. And finally, it involves understanding the simple basics of grassroots politics, and how they apply to organizations.

This last topic, internal politics, is what we never seem to teach in typical academic programs, or even in professional development seminars. But, I have now come to think that it is actually the most imporant topic I can bring to these students.

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No doubt about it, someone inside organizations is always complaining. In fact, at times it can seem like everyone has problems they want to complain about.  And once in a while it can even feel like the whole place is coming apart.

Our tendency as managers is often to try our best to address each problem directly. One-by-one we analyze the substance of the complaint, and then contact the concerned person. We review a range of possible solutions, and  propose a plan to resolve the matter. But many times problems seem to keep coming. It’s almost as if the more focused we become on solving problems the more negative the overall work climate feels. We expect that by solving problems we will make people happy, and instead it merely appears to reinforce an overall perception of an organization or office in trouble.

After years of working in and with organizations, I have come to see that when a perceived sense of forward movement slows down, complainers tend to come out of the woodwork.  It’s almost like when people are no longer excited about their future, they begin looking around inside and easily find new things to be upset about.

But, when a vision is clearly articulated, and executives and opinion leaders are “walking-the-talk” about new directions and achievements, morale generally becomes more positive, and many problems just tend to fade away. Certainly some don’t go away completely, and the more serious ones will need to be addressed. But the perception that “we are making great things happen again” will almost always render many internal problems insignificant, and sometimes even irrelevant.

So when complaints appear to be overwhelming, and the organization gets bogged down in gripes, you should consider re-energizing  your vision, ramping up bold communication initiatives, and getting your leadership out there again telling your story with renewed passion. By doing this you just might find that many of your internal complainers will magically fade right back into the woodwork!

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This week I have been thinking about the advanced seminar in strategic integrated marketing communication (often referred to as IMC) I will be teaching in the spring.  Enrolled will be graduate students and a few advanced seniors, and the question on my mind has been:  “What is it that they most need from me now?”

All of them will have taken the basic introductory subjects, learned fundamental research methods, mastered all the essential new and social media tactics, and even will have taken some advanced directed study courses. So, after much reflection about the lessons I learned over the years, I found myself beginning the course description: “We will first address internal politics, and the other barriers often confronted (and rarely anticipated) in organizations while trying to do our work.” 

I went on to list other topics such as critical thinking, strategy, leadership, planning, and problem-solving. But, I also found myself once again concluding that these students will have to be prepared to teach people in any organization they work in about what they do, any why it can be so very powerful.

The basic challenge for these advanced students will be to clearly understand themselves how it all works, to be able to explain it, and then to inspire others to do great things.  It’s a matter of living this subject matter, teaching it,  practicing it, and then adjusting what is done next from what was just learned.

Managing a staff later on will turn out to be much the same kind of challenge.  At first I felt self-conscious when I came into a staff meeting sounding like a teacher.  But now I know that “learner” and “teacher” are other words for manager. And so, from day one, I strongly believe that everyone in our profession must continue to learn, and be prepared to teach.

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A colleague recently reminded me that I once said that if you want to make change happen it might require engineering a crisis!  Indeed, I admit I have made that remark from time to time, and I still think there is a small element of truth in it.  But mostly my intent was to go on and articulate what I see to be a larger truth.

My experience has been that for most people to want to reinvent themselves and change their organization, they must first see a better way forward to a better future. During periods when they are complaining about all the little things they see wrong, they really mean they are no longer believing that overall success is likely for their institution and themselves in the days ahead.

In most of these cases I think it’s best to find what big ideas have worked in the past, or are now working, and then recommend that more like them be used to launch a renewed and revitalized strategic plan.  In other words, focusing on specific problems often creates and reinforces a larger negative environment, which can  actually paralyze growth. But, by revitalizing what has been working for the institution, overall morale can be improved and everyone can once again become inspired.

Admittedly, a real crisis will bring about an intense desire for change. In fact, that can be felt throughout American society right now.  Today, I am attending the Texas Book Festival and there is a demonstration immediately outside my hotel window! Hundreds of young people are marching and chanting : “We want change, and we want it now!”  Moments like this certainly are ideal opportunities for creative leaders to emerge with new ideas about a brighter future.

So, I guess my original “element of truth”  is that you should never waste a natural crisis!  When you have one right there in front of you,  you should recognize it as an opportunity for launching a new or renewed strategic plan with bold new tactics.  But when such a natural crisis doesn’t exist, I certainly think that to manufacture one risks turning the entire climate too negative.

I prefer to think the best approach will be to find what ideas have been working, and then come up with more creative ones like them. This should make people feel good, reinforce a positive work climate, and generate a widespread excitement about joining a positive renewal movement to reshape the future.

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This week I was a presenter at a CASE institute for senior marketing and communication professionals. One of the sessions I led was a review of my latest book which attempts to outline a subject matter for understanding and dealing with internal politics. I made the point that senior professionals are likely to spend half their time dealing with the politics of their institution. Most agreed. Some said they spend more than half.

We had only an hour to review the topic. So I asked the participants if they would attend a day and a half program exploring the topic in-depth with a faculty of seasoned survivors. I explained that their time would be spent  in interactive sessions discussing all facets of the problem. Their response was quite encouraging.

I imagine that such a conference might be organized around topics such as: 

1. The Political Nature of Institutions

2. Characteristics of Academic and Support Cultures

3. How Leadership Styles Define Political Problems

4. Institutional Misconceptions and Attitudes to Overcome

5. Identifying Typical and Individual Problems  

6. Examples of Potential Solutions and Initiatives 

7. How New Responsibilities Can Change People

8. Essential Political Survival Tools  

9. Teaching Your Institution About What You Do 

The purpose of this institute would be for each participant to leave with his or her political challenges thoroughly addressed, and with some tested ideas about what to try next.

Each time I point out how much time we spend dealing with internal politics, I have been reminded that no program or course is ever offered on the subject!  This institute would finally solve that problem.  I welcome your candid thoughts.

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This week I attended a workshop led by the co-founders of E Pluribus Partners about the immense power of developing a “culture of connection” inside every organization. 

The E Pluribus partners have aggregated research findings from psychology, psychiatry, sociology, organizational development, and neuroscience to demonstrate how “a feeling of strong connection between management, employees and customers provides a competitive advantage.”  In fact, they argue that without this strong connection people “will never reach their potential as individuals, nor will the organization.”  I was most especially interested in their reference to connection with “customers.” 

Call them customers, clients, students, donors, or supporters of any kind, as I listened I found myself thinking:  “Whatever happened to customer service?” 

 At one time in our profession we talked abundantly about how a happy customer became repeat customers, attracted other customers, and were the best ambassadors we could ever hope to have for telling and retelling our story.  We demonstrated how cost-effective it was to build strong loyalties rather than to focus mostly on constantly finding new business. Then airlines began to treat us as captive revenue units who needed them more than they needed us, and our banks made calling them on the phone a matter of talking to a whole series of automated impersonal recordings with little chance of ever getting through to a real person. Indeed, organizations of all types drove us to their websites, where even there it was impossible to find the email address or direct phone number of a real person. Alas, genuine connections for the most part have given way to digital, impersonal efficiencies, and human trust and meaningful  relationships have all too often been lost.

In the end, however, I was encouraged during this workshop to realize that all the writing I have been doing here over the past year about the power of integration and the use of group process has been right on the mark. Using orchestrated group interaction to get “everyone on the same page” with respect to vision and values, and inspiring  people to use a common voice in telling the story, is also building the strong “connections” with the customers and constituents we will need to give our organizations a meaningful and powerful competitive advantage. 

Building connections, then, is truly what integrated and relationship marketing is all about. So, I suggest you look into the work and writing of  the partners at:  www.EPluribusPartners.com

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Being misunderstood is one of the most frustrating feelings anyone can experience.  It certainly is true for professional communicators. Yet, it happens almost daily. In fact, I have been known to comment that there is no such thing as a communication expert. There are only people who work at doing it systematically every day.

Experience has taught me that as much as fifty percent of every message  is lost.  A receiver can only process so much information, and selective perception determines which fifty percent is remembered.  Noise interruptions, from technical problems to attention distractions, also make it difficult to process entire messages. Based on this same reality, I argued in a previous blog that people only hear what they want. So what can we do to improve understanding?

I suggest thinking about shaping important message content around seven steps: (1) Get your receivers’ attention before sending any message. (2) Tell them your main purpose up front. (3) Limit your message to a few main points. (4) Give an example or tell a story to substantiate each one. (5) Conclude by summarizing your key points and purpose. (6) Build in the most efficient feedback process you can.  (7) Respond to whatever feedback you get, and resend your message.

The closer communication can become actual dialogue, the more effective it will be.  And, the more distance and noise  (including technology) there is between sender and receiver, the less effective communication will be. In these cases, you must keep your message as simple as possible, and repeat it as often as you can. In the final analysis, we all must anticipate breakdown, and just keep going.  The advantage we professionals  have is that we do it everyday, and therefore are able to continually repeat and reinforce our most critical messages.

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Listening to all of the political rhetoric this week I kept thinking about how often I would tell my undergraduate students over the years about the practical lessons we must learn from communication theory study and research findings. One of the most important lessons is just how selective our perception can be.

One of my favorite examples was to demonstrate that when a committed democrat hears a well crafted speech by a strong republican, the democrat invariably becomes a better democrat.. and vice versa. This is because our natural tendency is to argue in our minds with what we are hearing so as to reinforce what we already believe. Changing our minds rarely happens.  Rather, we end up finding new ways to strengthen our long-held positions.

There was a period of time a number of years ago when several universities ended their debate programs.  Some of the academics felt that communication studies should examine how communication can help solve problems, and that debating mostly ended in polarizing arguments… leading ultimately to communication breakdown.  Today, competitive debate programs have been reinstated in some institutions. But critics will still argue that the most successful debaters are the extreme fast talkers and most polarized thinkers, and that winning the day by taking extreme positions, and making the most noise,  is the wrong lesson to learn.

My experience has led me to think a two-step process is required: First, I suggest that debating is helpful when it is defined upfront as “an exercise” to clarify all the viable positions. When the debate is complete, however, there is another set of collaborative decision-making communication skills necessary for progress to be made. The critical second step, and only way forward, is to use group process facilitation to find the best elements of each position, define an initial step forward, and then make needed adjustments as experience dictates.

Debate, followed by facilitated decision-making, is how the best organizations move ahead. And I believe it is the only constructive way forward for the U.S. political system as well.

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Now that we are halfway through the legislative session, developments in Austin are reminding me of how rumors are rampant everywhere. We live with them in organizations, and we are now dealing with them in the Texas legislature. What makes it so complicated is that they are sometimes only a consequence of the natural communication process; other times they are unethically manufactured.

The House bill in Texas dealing with the need-based financial aid program for private institutions calls for a 41% cut from current appropriations. Some will tell you that this is the way it will come out in the end.  However, we are now hearing from some on the Senate side that the final cut will be no more than 25%.  Still others say any cuts will be for only one year, and by the end of the summer, will be restored for the second year. Each unofficial source has his or her own story to tell.  So, are these rumors natural, or manufactured?  

I am reminded of the exercise I sometimes do in one of my classes where I whisper a message to one student, and then ask that it be passed from one person to another around the class.  When the last  person hears the  message I ask that it be repeated out loud to the entire class.  It’s always amazing how much messages change.  Sometimes they in no way resemble the original statement.

Communication experts often explain how rumors are a natural part of the communication process, and therefore cannot be avoided.  Natural rumors  actually develop in three steps: 1)  listeners can remember only a portion of  each message, and they always select the portion based on their individual special interests; 2) in retelling a message, the portion they remember is automatically given  additional personal emphasis; and,  3) additional thoughts are then added from the communicator’s personal experience.  A message will often significantly change with only one retelling.  But, when retold many times, it can become  a whole new message.  These rumors are both innocent, and natural. 

However, in today’s competitive world, both in organizations and in society, rumors are often used as ruthless strategic tools. They are  consciously manufactured, and relentlessly repeated. The belief is that if they are repeated often enough, they will eventually be seen as true, i.e. “Obama was not born in the U.S.”  Those that recognize what is happening often just drop out of participation from disgust, leaving extremists to win elections and manage our affairs. As professional communicators, we cannot accept this situation as mere clever competition. Rather it is unethical behavior, and in time it will totally undermine the effectiveness and integrity of our profession.

We must, therefore, challenge institutional leaders, politicians, and  practitioners who have adopted questionable communication tactics. The only professional response to rumors, natural or manufactured, is the formulation of truthful, simple messages. These then can be  repeated using interactive tools and tactics selected for each audience. When a rumor is identified upfront, and then followed by a thoughtful statement, the rumor can be bypassed and legitimate communication restored.  We know this approach works in organizations, and we must now make it work in today’s socially destructive political environments.

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I just returned from the Texas Legislature and am headed to Washington for the American Council on Education’s (ACE) annual conference.  All week I heard, “You make a good case for support, but we have no money.”  And I am likely to hear the same song again in Washington.

It may be much the same even inside your institution.  Your organization may have fallen on hard times too, and you are just told there is no money.  You may have a good case for moving forward, but it is dismissed. The only remark you hear is the one for which there is no argument. We are broke.

In a situation like this there seems to be little hope. No matter how good a case you make for increased support, the answer is the same. I have been in this situation many times, and so today I have been asking myself, “What are the lessons I learned?” 

In retrospect I realized that even in this legislative climate, by continuing to make my case, I have an opportunity to lay the groundwork with legislators for the day when the economy gets better.  If I was impressive today, they just might want to help me even more tomorrow. 

So the lessons I learned are these: 1. First, convey an empathetic understanding of the reality of the economic moment. 2. Then, continue to make your case for the social value of the support you need. 3. Look for changes in the situation over time that may allow some progress, no matter how little. 4. Make a reasonable compromise now, in exchange for a promise of support later.  When times get better, your organization will too.

Bad economic times can really be depressing. But if, in a situation like this, your communication initiatives are handled positively, professionally and with confidence, you will establish a foundation now that will bring you even  more success over time.  In a word: Onward!

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