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Don’t Risk Poor Communications with Employees

February 1, 2013
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The results of the 2012 election puzzled me. If, as the polls suggested, the core issue was jobs, Mitt Romney had the far stronger record on job creation, and his support included the backing of the vast majority of business owners.

Still, his message did not take. Why? My search uncovered two highly instructive essays — one by a conservative commentator and another by a liberal think tank. Both reached the same conclusion. The key issue for the majority of voters was fairness of outcomes. I believe both these essays yield fantastic data on how to talk to our coworkers.

Kevin Williamson’s essay in the National Review describes the different attitude business owners, investors and managers have toward risk vis-à-vis the general public. Risk-tolerant individuals (the bulk of entrepreneurs) seek fair economic opportunity. They believe with a level playing field, they can out-compete and out-produce all comers. Risk-averse individuals (who tend to make up the bulk of our society) seek fair economic outcomes, and see competition as something dangerous that must be tempered by government and societal intervention.

William A. Galston, in an essay for the Brookings Institute released Jan. 2, 2013, reports that President Obama’s re-election team “decided on a theme — fairness — and a strategy using policies and events to mobilize key constituencies. And they waged a near-flawless tactical battle, including the decision to spend the summer and much of their war-chest characterizing Mitt Romney as a heartless plutocrat. Throughout the fall, economic optimism rose, along with the enthusiasm of the President’s core supporters.”

What gob-smacked me was a quality that I and most businesses owners admire: “a risk-tolerant attitude” could easily cause a business leader to be reclassified as “a heartless plutocrat.” That re-classification took hold for the majority of the electorate. And, similarly, if one of a business owner’s core values causes mistrust among her/his workforce, it could be an opening for union organizing campaigns. The perception also can lead to an unmotivated workforce.

This reality brings to mind findings from a California Trucking Association-commissioned series of focus groups.

CTA discovered two glaring facts: Nothing was more important to the public than safety, and the public would not believe the truckers’ claim that safety was our most important value.

This led CTA to take two actions: The organization’s slogan became “Trucking is our business, Safety is our priority.” The new CTA logo placed the truck in the context of California commerce so that the truck shares the logo with other California symbols. CTA still maintains that slogan and logo today.

Here’s the takeaway: the burden was on CTA to communicate to risk-averse individuals that we cared about their safety in a context they could accept.

I compare that CTA experience to Romney’s attempts to relate why repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), or reducing the unfunded liability for pensions, created a fairer working environment. He did not. He relied on ideological statements while Obama put forward people who, because of pre-existing conditions, could now receive coverage under Obamacare. President Obama gave the risk-averse majority of our electorate justification to vote for him (or not to vote for Romney).

Every message a business owner, manager or investor sends will be tinted with a risk-friendly message. Only when that message is converted into a plan for success for the risk-averse individuals in their workforce will it be received and accepted.

 And, keep in mind, risk avoidance is not a sign of weakness nor is risk tolerance a sign of strength. These are competing attitudes toward life; they are not judgments about a person’s character.  wt 

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