Authenticity & Honesty in Communication
Living and operating in times of ambiguity, we crave certainty. Often that certainty comes in the form of context and detail. Context gives us comfort and reason. We can rationalise what we are being told against our mental models which are based on past experiences and biases. Our brains being prediction machines crave detail to compare with our previous experience to determine whether we should feel good about the message or fear it.
But what if the reality of the situation is unique. We do not have suitable references for context making. How do we frame communication then?
In the past weeks of the UK lockdown, I have been a bit of a daily news conference junkie. I have listened to the briefings by Government Ministers and I have listened to the questions from journalists and have become more exasperated by the lack of authenticity and honesty from those giving the messages and those testing them.
One consistent message we have been getting from the Government spokespeople is that this is a unique situation. There may be some elements where it is possible to draw parallels but when you take the Coronavirus Crisis, as a whole, it is unique. Our Prime Minister and his team and their advisors have not experienced this before and are therefore, along with the scientists, learning as they lead us through this situation. It therefore follows that we should not expect them to have all the answers. But this is not the case. The journalists seem to be looking for cracks that they can exploit into chasms and be the individual who exposed the lie.
Whereas society relies on the media in its role as the ‘Fourth Estate’ to provide unbiased news and transparency, they have instead created a psychologically unsafe place for Ministers to operate in, in their pursuit of sound bites.
Responses such as “We don’t know yet, but we have a team of experts doing X and Y and we should have a response by Z,” are not allowed. This shows “weakness” and a “lack of leadership.” This might be a correct response to a more operational and predictable situation where we have the luxury of decades or centuries of experience. Where we have the experience and evidence, we can create a context that we can all be comfortable with. Our brains can cope with that. The combative style of journalism may be more acceptable and appropriate then. However, if the current situation is unique, ambiguous, and where we are learning and having to make judgements based, less on hard data and facts but more, on intuition, then we need to apply context.
So how can leaders help themselves?
To be authentic and honest, communication requires humility, an understanding that one does not have all the answers but striving to find them. Humility to be open to other’s opinions and input. Humility to be transparent in decision making and say when a wrong decision was made, yet in good faith.
Without this we see ministers trying to justify decisions made weeks and months ago based on limited data and experience which have proved, with hindsight to have been wrong. They start digging with a trowel and by the end of the answer they are using a JCB to dig themselves into a crater.
A second issue is communicating by big gesture. Making a big announcement to pacify the masses. We have had a few of these during the past few months. Promises on delivery of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Delivery of a World Class Track & Trace System, 100, 000 tests by the end of April etc., etc.
One of the fundamentals that must be in place, before these promises are made is the means by which to deliver them. Securing PPE when global demand is through the stratosphere and we do not have control over supply or manufacture is dangerous. Sourcing and scaling scientific facilities and the volume of required components to carry out the tests takes time. So, making these gestures under the banner of “being audacious” doesn’t wash.
However, building the first Nightingale Hospital in days and then following it up with the network of hospitals has been nothing short of spectacular. The big difference here was that the Government had most of the resources under its control.
The coming weeks and months will see many corporate leaders and their teams in similar situations to that of national leaders. The immediate term will be ambiguous, setting direction being comfortable with a lack of certainty and evidence will be difficult.
I add a third trait to being Authentic and Honest, and that is Trust. Trust your people, engage them in building the future, you will be surprised what a relief that will prove to be.
My final observation is that there is a role model of authentic, honest, and trusting leadership. That role model is Jacinda Ardern.
Chris Bevan is a Co-founder of Outvie Consulting who support organisations through complex transformations. He is also a NED and Advisor