How do you approach coworker advocacy?
Ensuring coworker advocacy is easier said than done. As a communicator, getting your colleagues to understand, appreciate, and engage in corporate communication has always been a tall order.
Forcing or coercing coworkers into prompted advocacy is often unethical, sometimes even illegal — and generally a bad idea in terms of the actual outcomes.
And settling for just explaining the value of communications to non-communication professionals is often times a vain pursuit.
There must be another way to encourage coworker advocacy.
The sales responsibility analogy
In a company, who is responsible for sales?
“The CEO” would, of course, be a perfectly reasonable answer. If a business ain’t selling, the CEO must be held accountable.
The CEO, in turn, might look to the Head of Sales. The Head of Sales must produce results and report back to the CEO. As follows, the Head of Sales might look to the Sales Department for sharing the burden.
But what if HR was responsible for recruiting the Head of Sales — and the whole sales team? Isn’t, then, HR responsible for sales performance as well? If HR does a bad job recruiting, don’t they share at least a little bit of the responsibility?
What about coworkers working with order fulfilment in some capacity? The best sales pitch is arguably having a satisfied customer referring new customers. So, isn’t product- and service delivery a crucial component of long-term sales success? Again, a perfectly reasonable assumption.
What about customer service? And what about all other support functions ensuring customer satisfaction and operational excellence? What about research- and development? Aren’t R&D in fact critical to even having products or services worth selling?
The short answer is: Yes, they are. They all are.
Communication and coworker advocacy
The logic seems clear. In any business venture, everyone is responsible for sales. Each co-worker carries the responsibility — albeit at varying degrees and in different ways! — but they all do.
Most business-minded professionals get this, intuitively. No matter their role in the business, they understand that the company must make money to make payroll. Some roles struggle with proving their worth in relation to the sales process, but even these people understand the importance of sales.
Now — let’s flip the narrative over to communication.
Communication is typically one of those functions in an organisation where it’s a challenge to demonstrate a direct effect on the bottom line. Still, the CEO is responsible for how the business communicates and the Head of Communication is typically held accountable — and so is the Communication Department.
But from here, the logic often break down.
Communication is everyone’s concern
Just like everything in a business relates to sales, everything a business does or says is communication. In fact, selling is in itself a highly specific and targeted form of communication. Leadership is a form of communication. Products or services are in themselves communication.
In short: Communication is a concern for everyone and everything in a business. However, many co-workers are unable to see their part in the overall communication process.
Whereas co-workers understand that a business must make money to make payroll, many think of communications as the sole responsibility of the Communication Department. This is a slippery slope.
A few people, often near the top, might care a great deal about communication — while the rest of the organisation doesn’t, not really. The result is top-down communication internally and conflicting messages externally. this is a recipe on how to erode both coworker- and customer trust quickly. And, this is how businesses become stale and how brand values are given a false echo.
It’s a toxic brew, to be sure.
A communications-specific problem
Overall, this type of challenge is actually quite unique to communications and HR.
The legal department, for instance, doesn’t have this problem; co-workers intuitively understand that they are individually responsible to comply with laws and regulations. Most co-workers know that they can’t just dismiss compliance with, “that’s something for the legal department to deal with; it’s not my concern.”
Marketing, too, gets a free pass due to its close relationship to direct sales.
What about non-profit organisations, then? For non-profits, communication often becomes the single most important tool to achieve organisational success. In such settings, the narrative that “communication is the sole responsibility of the communications department” becomes even more detrimental.
So, how can communications address the issue of co-workers not seeing themselves as participatory responsible for the overall communication of the company or organisation?
The basic tenets of coworker advocacy
The first insight is often the most overlooked: Few coworkers have been briefed on what their actual role is when it comes to advocacy.
Because let’s face it — advocacy is rarely clear for anyone except for the CEO, is it?
Is it about answering emails promptly? Is it about respecting and participating in activities created by the communication department? Is it about keeping up to date with the latest PowerPoint outlining “core values” and “elevator pitches”? Is it about actively sharing the organization’s stories in social media? Or, is it about some infringement on freedom of speech to get everyone speaking in unison for the greater good of the organization?
Well, no. That’s not how coworker advocacy works.
Communication brings something that other organizational functions cannot bring to the table — authenticity.
Your coworkers might be at fault for not recognizing their communication responsibilities, but forcing compliance will only make them less useful as advocates for the organization.
Without authenticity, all communication breaks down.
Coworker advocacy is all about culture and leadership
Coworkers must want to be great communicators.
Coworkers must want to go the extra mile.
They must want to endorse their workplace as well as their products and services — not because they care about their employer, but because they care about their friends.
“Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.”
— Brian Tracy
For authentic advocacy, coworkers must be invited, engaged, prompted. But never coerced or ordered. And establishing such a culture is a leadership challenge.
In concrete terms, leaders and communicators must give their coworkers an authentic and inspiring way of talking about the organization.
If coworkers are neglecting their responsibilities as advocates, then they’re just not onboard with the current narrative.
Adjusting the cultural narrative
To adjust these narratives and promote a more open mindset towards communication, I’d suggest using this framework:
Authenticity > Culture > Collaboration > Accountability > Maturity
Authenticity: What’s the actual narrative? There might be an idea that communication is already a cost and the rest of the organisation should be shielded from further waste. In a way, these co-workers are “protecting” the organisation.
Culture: How do we change the narrative? To replace an existing narrative, co-workers deserves a better narrative that works better for them than the existing one does. Like, “I am a salesperson and I’m a better communicator than my competitors.”
Collaboration: How do we reinforce the narrative? Co-workers must get narrative-specific training which is highly engaging and rewarding — and a safe space for practical experimentation.
Accountability: How do support the narrative? Co-workers must get positive feedback that is direct and clear whenever the new narrative is applied successfully. Positive reinforcements typically work best.
Maturity: How well does our narratives work? The organisation must measure the communication maturity to measure progress and identify new or emerging harmful narratives.
Thank you to Catrin Johansson, Professor in Organizational Communication at Mid Sweden University and Co-Founder of KIX Communication Index, for valuable feedback on this blog post.
Photo by Jerry Silfwer.