Mike Klein is an Internal Communications strategist and writer based in the Netherlands. He is also the author of From Lincoln to LinkedIn, the 55 Minute Guide to Social Communication, a manual for mobilizing peer-to-peer communication in communities and organizations, and owner/author at Changing The Terms, which was recently recognized as one of Europe's top PR and Communication Blogs by Communication Director Magazine.

 

Chuck Gose: Before we dig into any internal comms questions, I have another one for you. Given your background in politics, what’s your take on what you see going on in the UK, the US and elsewhere?

Mike Klein: The fundamental balance in politics is between the need for authority and control on the one hand, and for free exercise, free association on the other. In the US and the UK, we have seen a drive for higher authoritarianism -- particularly among less-well-off voters who resent the extent to which better-off voters have been able to take advantage of personal freedoms. Brexit and Trump are essentially the same phenomenon. And both types of voters work in our organizations.

CG: And it seems that this has given some empowerment to these voters by being more vocal. I’m not suggesting this is wrong but their message can be a bit abrasive. How do you see this behavior impacting discourse at companies? Or does it?

MK: The Trump/Brexit trend was punitive of opposition voters. The “resistance/remain” trend has a tendency to be contemptuous in response. Both sides hate each other. Some companies are addressing by tamping down on politics, but this has the risk of suppressing tensions and of people shying away from seeing organizational problems as being “small-p” political in nature.  

 

"Workplaces have survived rivalries and hatreds for decades -- they usually flare up after any good sports weekend."

 

CG: And this flies in the face of two of my least-favorite words: authenticity and transparency. Not that they are bad words but people like to throw them around like candy at a parade. If people don’t feel like they can share who they are at the workplace, that’s not a good thing.

MK: Workplaces have survived rivalries and hatreds for decades -- they usually flare up after any good sports weekend.  

The unwillingness to address conflicts and organizational problems as being “small-p” political is far more corrosive, because it goes against basic realities, and often covers them up with drama about personalities or treats problems as unsolvable.  

CG: And just so we’re clear for the readers, explain “small-p” political and, presumably, “big-p” political.

MK: Big-p is electoral, partisan, high profile stuff. Trump and Brexit are “big-p”

Small-p is anything having to do with power dynamics in organizations and communities.

The dynamics are similar. The biggest challenge in internal communication involves finding the right balance between authority and hierarchy on one axis and informality and “liberalism” on the other.  That’s no different than any other power dynamic, anywhere.  And management has a strong preference for authority and hierarchy, even if it isn’t appropriate for addressing all problems.

CG: And there you sit in the Netherlands. Simply put, how the hell did you end up there?

MK:  I got my MBA at London Business School in ‘98, and qualified for a British Passport, which is, of course, a European passport, in 2004. I had moved back to the US in 2003, and after a while realized I wanted to move back to Europe. A one-year contract with Shell’s IT organization opened in 2007 in the Netherlands. I came back to the Netherlands in 2012 after working in Belgium for Cargill and Copenhagen for Maersk Oil.

I feel very lucky to be here. It’s not as dynamic of an IC market as the UK, but it’s a fantastic place to live and work.

CG: Why do you think the UK, and perhaps more specifically London, has cornered the market/conversation on internal communication?

MK: London hasn’t cornered anything. In fact, it has been cornered by some choices made in the market some years ago, about aligning IC with the push for ever-higher employee engagement scores. But it has serious critical mass. There is real career mobility for IC pros in London and the UK. There are dynamic associations:  IABC-UK, IOIC, CIPR-Inside and the up-and-coming PRCA. There are eminence grises like John Smythe, real thought leaders like Leandro Herrero, and drivers of community like Rachel Miller and Rich Baker. Even the recruitment market is intense and sharp-elbowed.  Nowhere in North America or Europe is nearly as exciting on a local basis.

CG: You provided a nice segue to my next question. On my ICology podcast, you described employee engagement as a “double-barrelled disaster.” Explain this.

MK: Having given it some thought since, the real disaster is that there are two different imperatives wrapped up in the single term “employee engagement.”  

The first is benign, even positive: “to create and activate an environment where employees can participate with greater enthusiasm and in better alignment with organizational goals.”  

The second: “to drive ongoing improvement in employee engagement score results and thus illustrate a contribution to better performance,” is infinitely more problematic.

CG: I have two yes or no questions for you. First, can employee engagement be accurately measured?

MK: Yes.

CG: Should employee engagement be measured?

MK: Yes.

CG: Okay, now explain why it’s important for engagement to be measured for the business. Because, I admit, I’m a bit surprised by your answers.

MK: Anything can be measured when it is accurately defined. The problem with how we IC folk “engage” with employee engagement is that employee engagement surveys are often poorly aligned either with actionable definitions of engagement, or with real organizational objectives. And, it’s actually left to IC to drive the disconnect by pushing for 100% participation and ever-increasing survey scores.

CG: Do you think the traditional annual engagement survey still is relevant?

MK: It never was relevant, except to leaders who either want to conspicuously demonstrate “improvement” or beat managers over the head with the data.  

CG: What is the best way for a company to measure employee engagement?

MK: Focus on organizational objectives and the extent to which they depend on conscious participation. Forget about benchmarking and arbitrary comparison. And focus less on measuring “engagement”, and more on delivering impact.

CG: You recently wrote that companies should get rid of town halls. Mind explaining why?

MK: Some companies, I was reminded by my readers, have their public meetings in a way that stimulates real conversation.  But many more do not -- and indeed, use town halls to “tick the box” of “open discussion” by executing them in a way that suppresses actual discussion. They thus become high-visibility, low-impact exercises like many that are becoming increasingly common in many organizations.

CG: You could argue that a lot of communication tactics and channels at companies have a “tick-the-box” approach.

MK: It wouldn’t be much of an argument, however.

CG: But do you see value in doing the right kind of town hall? Or, in your mind, what is the right town hall-ish type activity?

 

"Word of mouth is the most powerful, and least popular, IC tool around."

 

MK: Real conversation, open discussion, even a bit of disagreement, can have a huge impact. For me, the “right” kind of town hall, or of any IC intervention, is one that people talk about afterward.  Word of mouth is the most powerful, and least popular, IC tool around.

CG: I like that last sentence a lot. You hear a lot about word of mouth in external marketing but not in internal communication. How do you think internal communicators can take advantage of word of mouth.

MK: I just came up with it. I’ll keep that. Why is word of mouth unpopular in IC? Because it’s hard to control. I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to get traction for identifying how word of mouth - influence - flows in organizations. Finding out how word of mouth flows is easy - a simple survey or a quick social mapping exercise. Research shows that 3% of people (top influencers) drive 90% of conversations. But, there is often little overlap between who those three percent are, and who managers think they are. That scares managers.  

CG: And now we have another term that’s used externally, influencers, that is now being highlighted internally. How do communicators find influencers? Or do they probably already know these people?

MK: Indeed! As I said, finding influencers is easy -- less expensive than gathering the management team in a resort hotel for a couple of days, in some cases. Living with the knowledge of who they actually are can be a bit hard for some people. So some companies hijack the terminology, influencers, and use it to name what others would call an “ambassadors” program as an attempt by the hierarchy to inject itself into the informal conversation.

CG: In some cases, influencers could be a negative for getting some communication out there.

MK: Influencers, having been identified in a survey noting them as people from whom employees seek knowledge or support, are the real deal.  And many are cynics or skeptics or people who have kept their noses clean politically, often for a long time. The biggest value in identifying them is that you can get them the facts and context, as opposed to letting them draw their own conclusions and share them as rumors.

CG: And once these influencers are found, I think it would be smart to involve them as early in the communication process as possible, rather than on the back end.

MK: Yes. And, rather than trying to commandeer them as ambassadors, to have ambassadors work and talk with them privately and share ideas and knowledge. So, rather than the ambassadors simply being corporate megaphones, they develop into a new type of leader who can bridge the manager and influencer perspectives.

CG: There’s another term you’ve written about recently which I think is a huge opportunity for communicators that I don’t think they’ve thought of: transformational networking. Explain what this means for communicators.

MK: Transformational networking - which turns networking from collection of contacts to intervening to create connections - is another passion of mine, one which I co-led a session at IABC World Conference with my NL-based friend Lin McDevitt-Pugh. As internal communicators, we often have a 360-degree view of our companies and many people who drive value, results and ideas. We can add a ton of value, perhaps even more than from our actual comms roles, by introducing these people to each other. Rather than just connect the parts of the story, we can connect the organization, rather than letting things take their course.

CG: Communicators suffer from a curse of knowledge. And I think transformational networking is a way for them to turn this curse into a blessing of sorts.

MK: Much more than a blessing. Real impact. Real power. The ability to change and improve our organizations -- simply by putting the right people together in unexpected ways.

CG: I want to thank you Mike for being on this Chuck Chat. It was as great as I thought it would be. But I do have one final important question for you. Describe your feelings on internal communication via an emoji.  

MK: 🐗

CG: Okay, I’m going to need an explanation on this one.

MK: Wild boars are intelligent, ruthless, resourceful and deeply underrated. But that never stops us.

CG: Fantastic!