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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Communicating to a Cynical Workforce

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We don't need to debate this, do we? Many people are checked out at work. They don't take the time to read your carefully crafted messages very carefully, if they read them at all. They can barely be bothered to take the all-employee survey with its detailed questions and responses.

And if you tell me that employees work for their managers, not the company, and they mostly want to hear from the boss who's giving them a performance evaluation at the end of the year, point taken. But are employees really engaged with the information they receive from their managers? Maybe the information is timely and relevant to their jobs, but does it have that higher ring of truth and meaning?

Consider the fact that at any given moment a substantial percentage of employees are angry. They don't like the way they're being treated, or they don't feel valued on the job, or someone at work is harassing them, maybe even the boss. Perhaps they are underpaid or their job title is inappropriate for the work they do. They are probably keeping their eyes open for another, better job; or maybe they're actively looking.

If they've been in the organization for any length of time, they've seen senior leaders come and go and with these executives the grand initiatives that were supposed to fix everything.

It is hard to imagine what kind of internal communication could break through the clutter, the spoil and the noise and truly get people to open up and work together.

Some might say that the answer is radical honesty, or openness or some version of transparency combined with emotional intelligence. But that answer leaves the broken system largely intact.

The way to communicate effectively with cynical employees is, first, for the people who run the organization to secure, in writing, a commitment to justice—starting now.

Justice means that unethical employees are eliminated from the system. This includes the bullies, the cheats, the liars, the incompetent and those who simply refuse to do their fair share. All of them are bound to new rules of behavior, and those rules are written to benefit customers and employees alike, without doing anything to hurt the surrounding community or environment.

The proclamation of justice should be posted in a public place, and the organizational changes should then commence immediately, carried out by a governance board comprised of employee representatives of all types and levels.

Depending on the type of organization one is dealing with, the specifics of this will differ.

After the detritus of the organization has been removed, decisions must be made concerning fair and appropriate compensation. Again, how this is done will necessarily vary. I am not an economist, an accountant or a budgeting officer. But most people can understand that the greater the risk, the greater the reward and that nobody's labor should be exploited.

So now we are left with a pool of reasonable people, ready and willing and able to work, comfortable with the compensation scheme.

At this point, decisions must be made about business strategy, and how it is going to change to conform to the new (i.e. just and fair and open) environment. How will the organization return value to its stakeholders?

Again, this is where representatives of the employee community come in, to think through the key issues and return with sensible decisions. Somebody has to be in charge of reviewing them and making the final call; most people understand that a certain amount of authority in the organization is inevitable and necessary.

Throughout this entire process, and the unfolding drama of events that is the day-to-day life of the organization, communication has to flow freely. If it doesn’t and people are hiding things or holding information to themselves to gain an advantage, the organization itself stands to fail. 

Here's the bottom line: Internal communication is not the equivalent of icing on the cake. Rather it is the main course of the dinner. It has to be connected to the fundamental decisions that are made every single day about how the organization will function. It has to be connected to a set of values to which all adhere, or are shown the door. It has to be inextricably linked to a sense of justice, the belief that all are accountable for the things they do and that accountability is not just the basis for membership in the organization but fundamental to its business model.

If you're still somehow thinking that you can ignore this kind of reality, the result will be a continuation of the same-old, same-old status quo. Checked-out, complaining, complacent employees who are happy to take a paycheck, but not so happy to show up at work and do their jobs. Talented individuals who have a lot of qualifications to contribute to your enterprise, but who have decided not to buy in to anything you say, because they know you aren't really invested in them.

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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