If you’ve sampled this herbal liqueur, you might be repulsed.
If you’re in the bar business, you might be among colleagues.
I was introduced to Fernet by a friend in the hospitality industry. One night, after finishing a cocktail, he ordered shots of the dark, aromatic liquid for us and for our bartender. I was baffled (and a little put off) by the strange, indescribable flavor. But, once the empty glasses were down, it was clear that we’d struck a deeper rapport with our attending mixologist. I felt like I’d just been given guest privileges at a private club.
Fernet-Branca is an intensely flavorful amaro made from herbs, roots and spices. I’ve grown fond of its quirkiness and I find it to be a good palate cleanser. I also like their label artwork. But it’s not for everyone. I once ordered a round for a table of colleagues at a firm Christmas dinner. It was not well-received.
I think Fernet’s limited (or, rather, selective) appeal is why it’s a popular form of the “bartender’s handshake,” a subtle, knowing gesture among those in the hospitality industry. It quietly but clearly says, We’re of a class. But it’s also why my proffer of Fernet to my coworkers didn’t go over so well. In addition to not liking the taste, which I expected, the gesture lacked any deeper meaning for them. Rather than a handshake, it came across like a prank. Same liquid, two very different reactions.
In these ways, a shot of Fernet is a bit like workplace jargon. To those in the know, it speaks volumes quickly and efficiently. To those who aren’t in the know, it’s met with raised eyebrows, confusion and even disapproval. While a shot of Fernet might earn a friendly nod from my bartender, it produced pinched faces among my coworkers.
Generally, jargon is used as a pejorative term; it’s something to avoid. But I think there are types of jargon, and not all are bad.
Good jargon signifies knowledge and experience. It can make communication between those in the know more efficient and more precise.
Bad jargon hinders understanding and can lull sender, receiver or both into a false sense of understanding.
This Progressive Insurance ad has a little fun with industry jargon.
Sometimes, not even the person using the jargon knows what they’re really saying. This happens when clichés and other vapid words and phrases stand in for clearly formed thoughts. These idioms often start as precise technical terms or fresh metaphors. Because they work, more people start using them. Eventually, though, these terms fall into the lexicons of people who really only think they know the actual definitions. Through misuse and overuse, the meanings become muddied and the terms become stale. I have to be honest, I still don’t know what a “catbird seat” is and where that phrase comes from. (Well, I do now.)
For the person communicating, this kind of claptrap is pernicious. Avoiding it takes self-awareness, switching off the inner linguistic autopilot and communicating more deliberately. (Instead of “catbird seat,” why not just say, “we’re in an enviable position”? Unless, of course, you’re making an allusion to the James Thurber story.)
Other times, the speaker thinks the words they’re using are common parlance when, in fact, they are not. In HR, there are countless examples. Typically, these are technical terms, legalese, SPD-speak or the latest management buzzword. These words may seem fresh or precise to those in the know — and they probably are — but to people in other functions, they’re gobbledygook. Here’s a good test for this kind of jargon. Try using it in casual conversation with friends at the next happy hour. (SHRM mixers don’t count!) If you wouldn’t use it with them, you should be careful about using it with employees.
If clearly defined, generally understood and properly used, jargon can become more like a secret handshake at your workplace. If used carelessly, it can be as out-of-place as tipping your bartender with coinsurance.
You’re out of town on business in a big city. You’ve been invited to a cocktail reception, so you drop your suitcases off in your hotel and, since the restaurant is only a few blocks away, you decide to walk. After a block, you turn right and on both sides of the street, dozens of business-clad men and women are running toward you.
It’s a bit of an odd but not altogether baffling image. After all you are in a crowded business district, and it’s rush hour. Still, why are so many people running in the same direction? Are they rushing to catch the same train?
As they approach, the image comes into focus. What you thought were expressions of hectic hurry are actually looks of fear. Concern is really crying. Panting is distant shouting. Clarity finally comes when the people rush passed you and you hear, “Don’t go that way! There’s been a huge explosion!”
A tide is rising around you. You feel an undertow of panic tugging at your feet and, as far as you know, what you do in the next few moments could determine your safety. Your brain and body are about to take over. What do you do?
I experienced this very moment on July 18, 2007, at about 6 p.m. I was in New York City and had just turned the corner onto 39th Street from Madison Avenue. I didn’t know it at the time, but an underground steam pipe had just exploded about two blocks away, near Lexington and 41st Street. I spent the next hour on the street trying to figure out what was happening and what I should be doing about it.
This experience, and the internal struggle that followed, is an example of what a person might feel when faced with a novel situation or incongruous information. It’s a moment of dissonance that any individual will be driven to quell so that he or she can evaluate circumstances, make decisions and take action. While hardly an opportunity for reflection at the time, I later realized I had been given a literal street-level view of crisis and how context, relevant personal experience and trust work together to ensure, or undermine, successful communication.
The explosion explains the behaviors, thoughts and feelings of the people on the street that day, but only on a superficial level. Of course, if something blows up, you’re going to run. But a fuller understanding of context provides a deeper appreciation for what people were experiencing at that moment. Context helps determine how available information is interpreted. And those interpretations, not the facts, elicit reactions and drive decisions.
The context here is easy to grasp: New York City. And while the magnitude of a steampipe explosion has very little comparison to the horrific events of September 11, 2001, those events are part of New York’s new mythology. New York is now a place where horrific things have happened which, unfortunately, makes it a believable setting where horrific things can happen again. Add to this the fact that, just a few weeks earlier, the Secretary of Homeland Security said he had a “gut feeling” that something bad was going to happen in the United States.
Without that context, my initial interpretation of seeing business people running down the street might have been the obvious cliché: New Yorkers rushing. But, thanks to the new context, I had a second, less savory option: New Yorkers escaping. Those of us in the vicinity of that blast were primed for a disaster. All we needed was a cue, and streets filling with smoke was a pretty good one.
So, let’s place this experience in a corporate setting. Imagine your company is about to announce a merger. Based on recent events, other communications and the current state of the company, how will employees interpret this announcement? Will they see this as merely a precursor to lay-offs, and start running; or will they view it as an opportunity and look for ways to help? These are just two possible interpretations, but they suggest how context can be predictive of success or failure, and how it can serve as a guide for when and how information is delivered.
In his book Sources of Power, researcher and author Gary Klein argues that personal experience often plays a more significant role than reason and logic when individuals make critical decisions, particularly when time is an issue. The uncanny ability some people have of knowing what to do when it matters is derived from a life rich in experiences and a perceptive subconscious able to recognize patterns and match current circumstances to past results. They know what to do because they’ve done it, or something like it, before.
For example, when training flight attendants how to deal with emergencies, airlines don’t simply tell them what they may need to do in a crash; they simulate it. They toss them fully clothed into a pool so their bodies will create memories upon which they can draw during an actual crisis. This is a way of implanting an action plan in the individual, one he or she can replay when panic might otherwise stall good judgment.
Simulations and exposure to real experience create a sensory databank the mind will scour when seeking a course of action. This is particularly important in critical moments, when there is little time to examine options, make strawmen or float trial balloons. Sharing case studies, documenting lessons learned and pure story telling are ways of creating experience, even vicarious ones, that can be useful to an individual who will someday face the same or similar circumstances. Without personal experience (or, in their absence, guidelines or leadership) employees in novel situations will act more like I did that day in New York, spending precious time wondering what to do while the contagion of stress threatens to spread.
As I zig-zagged my way through unfamiliar New York streets, trying to distance myself from the explosion, I was struck by the various mental states of the people around me. Some were completely oblivious, walking casually toward the area I had just been chased out of. They were laughing, cavorting and, generally, acting normal. These people could not possibly know what was going on, which, as I thought about it, was completely feasible. After all, I was only a couple blocks from the explosion when it happened, and I hadn’t heard it. The sky was overcast, so the billowing steam we thought was smoke wasn’t that easy to discern from the clouds. The flow of pedestrians was like a crooked stream, swirling with eddies and cross currents of awareness. Physically, we were shoulder-to-shoulder, mentally we were worlds apart.
Perhaps in greater numbers than the oblivious, though, were the anxious. I put myself in this category. This anxiety comprised a continuum that ranged from curiosity to near hysteria. Imagine the distinct reactions you would have upon hearing the following bits of news that were plaguing us on the street: “Grand Central Station blew up.” “I think a dirty bomb went off.” “A building is about to fall.”
Anxiety is a feeling of unease that results from uncertainty, or from being faced by a challenge one feels incapable of meeting. There was a frustrating and fearsome gap between what we knew and what we wanted to know. We had all been infected with incomplete information, and anxiety was the symptom.
So, the hunt for information began, a hunt guided by trust. In my case, I was in an unfamiliar city. I needed to understand what was happening, figure out where I had wandered to and make the best possible decision about whether to run, stay put or go back to my hotel. So, I reached out to a reliable source of information, my wife, even though she was hundreds of miles away in Tampa, Fla.
Something similar happens in an organization. When faced with new or difficult information, people will turn to the sources they trust. It might not be the source you want them to turn to, say a manager prepped with talking points, or even to a source that seems to make sense, such as a co-worker. Instead, they will go to whomever has built trust with them in the past. That could be a blogger, a friend or a cable news show. But, a fact more reassuring to a communicator played out during that hour: a crisis is a great opportunity to build trust.
I had reached out to my wife for two reasons: she would have more resources than I did and she’s tenacious. So when nothing about the explosion could be found on the television news, she called the news desk at the Tampa Fox affiliate. The reporter there hadn’t heard anything yet either but, sensing a potential story in the making, he called the New York affiliate. During the next few minutes, that reporter called my wife back two or three times. I was a little cynical. If this is a nightmare scenario, this reporter is going to relish having a local resident on the ground with a cell phone. But for whatever the reason, we had his attention and he was my best link to reliable information.
He acknowledged that the video feed he was getting from the news helicopter in New York looked bad, but the blast was a manhole cover exploding due to heavy rain, he said, and not the work of explosives.
I shared this information with people on the street. This should help allay concerns, I thought. The problem was, no one believed me. The anxiety was not abated and, perhaps, this apparently flimsy explanation might have even stoked it.
This frustrating situation might sound familiar. The information is there, but no one is biting, or it’s having an unintended effect. There are at least two issues at play: the credibility of the messenger, and a seeming incongruity between the evidence and the explanation.
In those first few minutes after the explosion, there were no experts on the street, and we were all leaning on each other for information. But who was I to say what was really going on? Seeing the reaction of others, I started to have doubts myself about what I had been told. In restrospect, the Fox reporter was like a distant, corporate honcho, and the people on the street were my office mates. I assumed these locals would have seen a manhole cover explode before, right? Our basic need was to hear the news from someone on the ground, someone with recognized authority. Even though I was talking to an apparently dogged reporter, I was just some guy who was as clueless as everyone else, regardless of how good my information was.
Aside from my lack of credibility, the explanation seemed hardly satisfactory based on the evidence before us. By this time, police were stopping traffic and a wall of smoke had filled the valley of high rises on Madison Avenue. The geyser of steam at the heart of this fiasco was roaring like the five-alarm fire we thought it was. And, to stimulate my deeper fears, unmarked, black vehicles raced up and down the street with sirens wailing. Could this really be a manhole cover explosion? It didn’t seem likely.
In the end, that hometown reporter’s information was more accurate than anything else I had heard on the street that day. If I had trusted him, I would have gone back to my hotel room 30 minutes sooner and saved myself an unsettling dose of adrenaline. But the reporter’s actions, and the quality of his information, demonstrate how trust can be made during a crisis. His responsiveness, his accuracy and his acknowledgement that things looked worse than they were might not have won me over in the heat of the moment, but when I later reflected upon the experience, I not only realized that he was more or less right, but that he was trying to do me a very big favor. As result, I have a new sense of trust in this station’s news team.
While incomplete information can serve as a troubling infection (a reality which encourages some to remain silent while employees wander their proverbial sidewalks in search of answers), good information — wisely conceived, crafted and delivered — can inoculate people against panic, doubt and anxiety. In less stressful moments, it can keep us oblivious to doubt and better equipped to deal with change and challenge. More specifically, understanding context helps guide what, how and when information is disseminated. This context can be elucidated through employee research and ongoing dialog. Personal experience can be augmented on the job through training and various forms of information sharing. And, lastly, trust can be built by being responsive, accurate and open over time.
A few days after my experience in New York, as I was collecting my thoughts for this piece, I stumbled across a poem titled In Memoriam, Section CVIX by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It was a little maddening (or perhaps encouraging) to see how economically and romantically he expressed some of the same points I had hoped to make. As he put it:
“Who loves not Knowledge? Who shall rail
Against her beauty? May she mix
With men and prosper! Who shall fix
Her pillars? Let her work prevail.”
Indeed, let the work of Knowledge prevail. But even Tennyson acknowledged, as I have learned, that beautiful truth needs its older sibling, Wisdom, to produce fruitful results:
Marketing isn’t always brutally honest. At best, it tends to exaggerate the upside and ignore the downside. At worst, it resorts to hype, slickness and even deception. This leads many consumers to consider most marketing communications phony.
Cynical consumers are more difficult to reach. So serious brands are cultivating authenticity as a remedy to prevent consumer skepticism and apathy. When companies adopt a marketing approach that is authentic, genuine and truthful, it helps build consumer confidence, especially when that approach aligns with a consumer’s experience.
Authenticity simply means real, reliable and genuine. Not phony. So how does a consumer know when a brand is making authentic claims?
Marketing researchers try to quantify authenticity to understand its effectiveness. Often, they look at two types of signals that consumers receive from a brand called “indexical” and “iconic” cues.These cues are the evidence by which consumers evaluate a brand’s claims.
Indexical cues are those experiences/evidences that are real and measurable—800 thread count for a set of sheets. Indexical cues are verifiable and not subjective. They either are true or not.
Iconic cues are those that resemble the object, as in “these sheets feel like liquid silk.” These are cues marketers use to represent the actual product or experience. These claims are subjective. Yet they are verifiable through the consumer experience. Authenticity hinges on the gap between the two cues.
According to Becker, et al., it’s not the object (sheets) that create authenticity, but the messages and other signals sent by the brand. The reality is fixed. The sheets have an actual thread count, and either are or are not soft. The expectation of “liquid silk” is created in the mind of the consumer. When the two align, authenticity is established. When the claims are exaggerated, authenticity is damaged.
Authenticity is easy (if you’re a marketer)
Creating authenticity should be a simple task for most marketers. Simply deliver on brand promises. A shoe seller need not be perfect. They just have to sell shoes that meet or exceed the expectations they set.
Five-dollar flip-flops won’t be inauthentic if they’ve blown out by the end of a long beach weekend. They’ve fulfilled their implied $5-shoe brand promise.
However, a $95 pair of Allbirds, which claim to be the “Worlds most comfortable shoe,” sustainable, and 100% washable because they’re made from wool, has a much higher bar than the flip-flop. Allbirds had better feel great and come through the wash like a champ. If they don’t deliver, they lose authenticity.
Compared to internal communicators, marketers have it easy because the consumer’s exposure is limited to the brand and its products.
When I buy shoes, I neither know nor care if the person packing my box is a miserable crank, the break room smells like reheated cabbage soup, or the corporate culture is toxic or chaotic. All of that is invisible to me as a consumer. I have no direct experience with the internal workings of the organization. So my sense of a brand’s authenticity is easier to build and maintain.
Unfortunately, things are not so easy in employee communications.
Workplace challenges to authenticity
“A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown.”
This phrase is shorthand for the phenomena where one’s talents are not appreciated by those closest to them. This lack of respect can come from many places.
Sometimes we have relationships to persons/situations that are removed from what makes them special. Tom Brady’s kids don’t care about his Super Bowl rings, they just want him to sit down and watch Frozen again.
Sometimes, we’re close enough to see the real situation or person, warts and all. Close proximity often causes situations and people to lose their luster. As essayist William Hazlet put it, “Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it takes the edge off admiration.”
Remember, employees experience the organization as it actually is, not as we depict it to be. Employees spend eight or more hours a day living and working inside indexical cues. This hardens them to iconic cues that don’t line up with their experience.
Employees know the true score; who’s the office crank, how the break room smells and how well the organization treats them. They also have memories built on internal brand promises made in the past. All of that informs credibility whenever you craft a message or campaign.
That isn’t to say that employees won’t buy into aspirational and motivational communication. They certainly will. Employees want and need forward-thinking leadership to stay hopeful, happy and engaged. But, they won’t believe messages that ignore today’s reality. Own the reality to make your messages authentic.
Authenticity is critical to long-term success and healthy corporate cultures. Shading the truth and over-promising leads to cynicism and disengagement. A firm foundation of truth and reality builds employee trust and increases leaders’ ability to engage and challenge them.
Becker, M., Weigand, N. and Reineartz, W. (2019). Does It Pay to Be Real? Understanding Authenticity in TV Advertising.
When Apple unveiled its first Apple Stores, the company was criticized for its seemingly indulgent approach to aesthetics and for using too much space to showcase their products. The company’s former CFO hated it. He was quoted as saying, “Apple’s problem is it still believes the way to grow is serving caviar in a world that seems pretty content with cheese and crackers.”
Apple stuck to its stubborn pursuit of a better consumer experience. It sought out to create stores that were beautiful places with friendly staff and cool, new technology. It chose the Ritz-Carlton as a benchmark. Not Radio Shack. Not BestBuy. Not the Gateway stores.
The point is to realize that the employee experience is not abstract; it happens in the real world, in a real place around other people and over a period of time. The employee experience is also more than benefits or total rewards or work/life balance. It comprises everything the employee perceives at and about working for your organization.
All of these dimensions need to be considered thoughtfully when designing processes throughout the employee’s journey, from recruiting through onboarding through performance management through benefits enrollment and more.
Have a Vision
Apple wanted its stores to be like the Ritz-Carlton. That vision gave them something to aspire to and it forced them to prioritize their needs and requirements.
Having a vision is necessary because good design begins with conscious intent. If you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, you’ll have no basis for decisions and no foundation for agreement among your team about what’s “right.”
Enhancing the overall employee experience is a massive undertaking. It involves, literally, everyone and everything at your organization. You can start in a manageable way by focusing on a specific experience, such as onboarding, annual enrollment, the performance management process, etc.
Later, you can apply the tools you use and the lessons you learn to other processes.
What Do You Think?
Have you tried to enhance the employee experience at your organization? Do you see it differently? Are you looking for help? We’d love to hear from you.