Samu: How to appeal to people… and other primates?
My starting point for writing this came after reading the Diane Schwartz’s PR News Blog ‘PR is Sales is Marketing is Advertising‘. It caught my attention with the first sentence, answering the question posed in the title. ‘The lines are blurry’. This resonated, having just written about the blurring of roles in a previous blog.
I was struck too with how delicately Diane explored the silo mentality that can build up in a large organisation, where the PR, marketing and sales functions and responsibilities are split across specialist teams. I’d add to that though by saying that such a mentality can be found in a small company too, just substitute individuals for teams. It’s certainly something I can empathise with, and look back critically at, now that I am in a position where those three functions, and more besides, rest at my door.
Diane’s suggested remedy was for a spot of job shadowing. I like the idea of, for example, a PR person spending time in a sales team to gain an insight into the pressures a sales role induces, and value the benefits of an increase in empathy for colleagues from a different team that can accrue.
I wondered though would this be enough, even with the further steps suggested of monthly meetings ? Would it prove sufficient in breaking down those silos? Would any positive effects be sustainable without a company cultural change?
Cultures or nature?
In part, silo thinking results from the subtly different cultures that evolve via different tasks undertaken, at times maintained by a team’s leader, as they serve to differentiate themselves or within the collective enterprise. Pay differentials can exacerbate this. But there is more to it than that?
A useful clue can be derived from an unlikely source. A study of Chimpanzees and Bonobos.
In this Duke University study it was found that positive and negative framing make a big difference in how our closest primate relatives are influenced in their decision making (If you are unfamiliar with the term ‘‘framing’ it’s worth viewing George Lakoff’s videos to read Dr Scott’s illustrative example.). The same is true for humans. In fact marketing in general and public relations professionals in particular, depend upon it.
It’s why marketing can promote a product as being ‘70% fat free’ and achieve sales, whereas if they chose to use the strap-line ‘contains 30% fat’ it would have a negative effect on sales. Two identical products that elicit different consumer responses. People, and indeed primates, don’t always react rationally to the messages that promote it. Framing matters.
Framing matters too within internal communications.
An organisation’s functions, its successes and failures, will be discussed differently according to the team. At times using a seemingly different language. This is common as specialisation encourages jargon specific to roles. Sales discussing contracts, targets, marketing talking about campaigns, personas, PR about pitching stories to press. This should be expected, but language differentiations can, and do, lead to more serious issues for an organisation when a team encounters difficulties.
It is now that the use of specialized jargon’s framing becomes amplified. If this is not dealt with in a timely manner it will tacitly enable a silo mentality. When this happens it is typical for decision making to become localised, for collaboration to cease, for managers to find it near impossible in encouraging ownership of collective goals, or to facilitate teams to take their own actions in the aid of ‘anothers’ problem.
If a sales team’s has concerns, say with falling ROIs, it can be tempting for other teams to frame these concerns as not being their problem (ROIs are a sales thing) so sales are left try to search for solutions internally, without involving marketing, or PR. In such a situation the decision making will rarely lead to a remedy.
The use of jargon, and it’s implied political power is not the sole issue that a company’s internal communications can reveal. They can also expose profound differences in the levels of cognitive biases that are tolerated within a team.
If a team or company’s culture elevates rational thinking above ‘‘instinctual’ (Often dismissed as emotional, or creative) thinking, it’s usually due to the priorities and values associated with their work flow. It’s also most often, but not exclusively, witnessed in those roles which require processing numbers, where ‘creativity’ can be seen to be an unwelcome addition. This culture is not easily changed.
For centuries there has been a debate, often heated, on whether rationality and number values do and should govern us as a counter to our base, illogical, emotions. It is an argument that continues to have profound effects.
It has been used by humanists versus religions. it has been used by religious people in questioning the hierarchical structure of their own denomination, sometimes leading to the founding of a different order.
It has been used by Hegelian philosophers, with their insistence, ‘the rational alone is real’, which in turn had a profound influence on neoclassical economists and the models they produced (If you unquestioningly accept a starting point that economic analysis can be built upon the rationality of an individual you produce idealised concepts such as rational choice theory.)
Consequently this has come to define the norms within ‘free-market’ financial capitalism, framing much political discourse as well as the curriculum’s of financial, management and marketing within education.
Ironically dissenters to the rationalistic hegemony of the ‘free-market’ have been accused of being ‘irrational’. What value then is democracy if we have ‘irrational voters’ – those that do not sufficiently understand economics? So we often see irrationality being considered lamentably, seen as somehow deviant, a dangerous threat to all. Yet we all depend upon it.
‘Consumer choice’ is illusory, Dan Ariely argues in ‘Predictably Irrational’, our biology presents us with illusions, to fight this irrationality might be ‘right’ but by not working with it, can literally have life or death implications. Ariely ably demonstrates this through the example a simple change, in one tick box, on the opt in forms for organ donations.
So it seems that humans, and other primates, are defined by their very biologies to be deviant (Something to bear in mind should creative thinking be questioned by more ‘logically’ orientated colleagues).
Neither one or the other – but often the other
The practice of rationality is a significant strength, in enabling idealised models, which can work as envisaged. There is great value in promoting rationality. But to deny that values can be derived from irrational thought is unwise. It takes most people a lot of energy to rationalise, decision making is complex, the more complex the variables faced, the more pressure the situation, the more prone we are to submit to irrationality.
As ‘consumer choice’ is ever extended, is the prospective we face that of societies being inherently susceptible to irrationality? I’m not that pessimistic.
The practice of communications is a heuristic discipline. It is neither ‘hopelessly irrational or wonderfully creative‘. At best, people in PR and marketing, are no different to those in finance or data sciences. All can utilise and adapt simple strategies that have undergone applied stress testing, that have produced testable results. We can be open to logic without dismissing feelings and, through experience, gain sufficient critical insights to know when to dismiss the ‘logic’’ of our peers, to bin the market research, the glitzy advertising, the economic theory, just as James Dyson did.
It is the responsibility of leaders to be aware of the language used within an organisation, of the imbalances that can accrue through specialisation and cognitive bias, to be proactive in truly ‘getting everyone to sing from the same hymn sheet’. Taking internal communications seriously is a start. Being driven by values though is vital.
To increase empathy across an organisation, to best help colleagues work as a collective, rather than as siloed or competitive teams, requires, as Simon says, leadership, values. It requires practical and applied methodologies to unify an organisation behind its vision, or mission. For this to be communicated effectively it has to be backed by management action.
Here then is my simple seven point plan, a contribution to enabling collective success. It won’t work for you though unless you agree with these values and are prepared to lead and communicate change.
- If incentives are unequally spread, they will not serve the whole. Assess the incentives for staff, consider their motivations, start by asking them.
- If team working is only confined to what happens in a department, rather than across the organisation, it’s missing the point. Ensure that any barriers to cross-collaboration working are dismantled. Introduce team fluidity.
- If you are overly reliant on KPIs to measure if change is happening, you are in danger of not seeing the value of creative disruptions. Expect the irrational. Accept our inner primate. Embrace qualitative findings and insight along with careful analytical reasoning.
- If staff need training in other ways of thinking, give them the confidence to adapt. Train them.
- If the jargon used is highly differentiated then don’t expect consistency of communications. Discuss then define open commonalities.
- If you don’t listen to internal conversations, you diminish your chances for change. Listen then lead.
- Finally, if you require a series of long meetings or long email chains to implement these actions then you are also missing the point. Change your internal consultation processes: meetings should concentrate on positive actions, with quality information available prior to decision making, whereas emails are best confined to critical messaging.