The Gatehouse Blog

The dangerous affliction known as ITS

As you can probably tell from the date of my previous post, I’ve been rather busy of late.

In the last six to eight weeks Gatehouse has won a pile of work and my blogging has undoubtedly paid the price. I know this is a cardinal sin for anyone who wants to retain an online audience but, unfortunately, needs must.

Along with the rest of the Gatehouse team I’ve been focused on delivering a variety of projects for a handful of new big name clients. These have included two major communication audits, a global research exercise to guide a series of strategic messages, various training assignments and the construction of a social media-based web site and supporting campaign. Exciting times!

Anyway, I wanted to take the opportunity now, thanks to a very long transatlantic flight, to discuss one theme that has come up again and again during this period and before – that dangerous affliction known as Ivory Tower Syndrome (ITS).

One of our key areas of specialism at Gatehouse is employee and stakeholder research – from full scale ‘roots and branch’ audits to more focused projects.

Every time we are asked to do work like this I feel incredibly privileged – because we inevitably get to talk to board members and front line employees alike, ask lots of awkward questions without worrying about internal politics, hear some incredible stories and, without fail, uncover some valuable insights into the reality of organisational life.

Our core methodology involves us talking confidentially to senior leaders – the qualitative interview phase – before undertaking organisation-wide quantitative research, usually involving a bespoke survey. For many clients we often carry out a third phase – another qualitative phase – based around a series of exploratory focus groups with employees. These are designed to get under the skin of any issues and challenges discovered in the earlier phases.

We’ve done dozens of projects like this over the past few years and one thing it always highlights is a disconnect between those at the top – those responsible for running the organisation – and those on the ground who are responsible for delivering whatever it is the organisation delivers.

When I say those at the top I not only mean board members and other senior executives, but also those who advise them, including head office communicators.

Of course, some leaders and communicators are more connected than others. Some have a good feel for life on the front line, while others have their heads buried deep in the sand. Some have a gut feel that things aren’t quite right (often one of the reasons they call us) while others are in complete denial, living in cloud cuckoo land. But the general pattern we’ve observed is that the head office strategy makers are often out of touch with those on the ground to a greater or lesser extent.

Thankfully, it’s relatively easy for us to see the gaps. As an independent third party we can get to the truth a whole lot quicker than those on the inside. We have no baggage, no agenda. Thanks to our methodology, which emphasises confidentiality, we find that people at all levels are incredibly open and honest with us – from the board down, they tell it as it is. This enables us to quickly identify the disconnects and explore the reasons for them, as well as potential solutions.

As a general rule, the more geographically dispersed the organisation is, the more risk there is of ITS. The further away from head office you get – both physically and culturally – the more hazy the view from the top becomes. Put simply, if your world revolves largely around the London HQ then the chances are you will be very surprised by the attitudes, opinions and practices of those in the far flung parts of your corporate empire – whether that’s Newcastle or New England.

You may not believe that, but this is something we find again and again in organisations of all sizes and shapes, many of them with highly professional comms teams.

We all know deep down that there is no such thing as ‘one company’ – organisations comprise a variety of cultures and life differs across teams, locations, levels, regions, divisions and just about every other split you can imagine.

One of the big symptoms of chronic ITS is a collective belief at the senior level that what you see and hear at HQ is somehow representative of the wider organisation. Nine times out of ten it isn’t. And that can be a dangerous thing.

The impacts are fairly obvious. Messages developed at HQ don’t resonate or, worse still, make no sense to large segments of your audience. Policies and initiatives are developed in isolation from those who actually need to implement them. This in turn alienates those on the ground who do not feel they are being consulted or listened to. This breeds disengagement and distrust. Employees check out and increasingly see those at the top as being on another planet. Needless to say, none of this is good for productivity.

So what can you do to avoid ITS?

The good news is that remedies are widely available. Here’s a few off the shelf:

– If you think your top team might be suffering from ITS then commission some research to investigate. Call in external help (ideally Gatehouse ;-)) and get them to present the results of their research findings, warts and all. That way you get the necessary home truths across without limiting your career!

– Create and cultivate a strong champion network to act as your eyes and ears across the organisation. Give them training in the basics of internal comms (we can help there too) and then actively involve then in developing and testing your communications, not just delivering them. Make sure this group is representative of your organisation, genuinely well connected and vocal. Make it clear that they are not the mouthpiece of management, but are there to ensure decisions are well informed and your communications reflect reality.

– Put in place a programme to ensure your senior leaders get sufficient exposure to employees at all levels and across locations. This might involve a back to the floor exercise (where leaders actually work alongside front line employees, for instance in the call centre) or a series of brown bag lunches (simple round table discussions with randomly selected participants). It might be less formal – perhaps rotating the venue for board meetings, so execs have a reason to be there. Where face-to-face is impossible, it might involve technology-led approaches like online forums, ask the boss intranet tools or online town halls. The important thing is that leaders get out there, are visible and actually talk to people. Of course, the same goes for communicators – this is not a job you can do well if you’re not willing to venture outside the corporate tower!

– Listen, really listen. Effective communication is two parts listening and one part talking – so make sure you’ve got all the tools you need to tune into your audience. From having a mole in the smoking room, to pouring over the latest engagement survey data, there are plenty of approaches that work.

– Create an imaginary friend. I’m serious. Develop a fictional character representing a typical employee from a distant and sometimes forgotten part of your business – then put yourself in their shoes as you’re developing your comms. What would they think? What would they say? Would it pass the snigger test or would they fall about laughing at your new strategic message? When I headed up comms for part of a retail bank, I had an imaginary friend, Billy of Bridgwater, who fulfilled precisely this role. Now i know you think I’m nuts.

– Acknowledge that advising senior leaders about the views, opinions and mood of the workforce is a critical part of your job. The internal communicator should be able to adopt the voice of employees and explain how messages will land in different parts of the organisation. This knowledge should be built on insight as well as gut feel. Know your audience.

– Perhaps most importantly of all, actually involve people. Ask them their views on new policies, new products, new initiatives, commercial challenges, cost saving or anything else. Then enlist their support in making it happen. Most employees want to be part of the action and hate it when things are simply done to them. If your organisation does insist on hatching its plans at HQ, at the very least make sure those away from the centre have chance to have their say and be listened to. Communication is two way. Dialogue is everything.

That’s it for now. I promise not to leave it so long next time…

Lee, Gatehouse