The patient who was brought to the emergency unit of the hospital had a fading pulse and other signs of cardiac failure. With a perfunctory glance at the cardiogram which the nurse-on-duty had rapidly managed, the Doctor In Charge (don’t look for acronyms everywhere) told the accompanying family members it was simply a communication problem – they had not been able to convey the casualty’s wellness to him convincingly enough. The doctor then proceeded to fill the communication gap and described to the patient how well he was actually feeling and how grateful he should be to god for blessing him with such robust health. The patient immediately departed to thank his maker in person.
What a ridiculous story! Yet, most of us who frowned at this improbable caricature (and wrinkled our noses at its tastelessness) don’t lift an eyebrow when communication is singled out as the root problem in relations between nations, social attitudes or corporate dissatisfaction. Those myopias cost far more lives, liberties and livelihoods than our concocted cardiac seizure story. In this column, we’ll take a closer look at the corporate version of this convenient cop-out that we can Communicate And Relax (CAR). First, however, we need to understand the origins and causes of this malaise.
The infectious itch
HR is not the only CAR purveyor in corporates. There are at least three other instances that precede, instruct and provide acceptability-cover for HR in this regard.
First in the queue is marketing. "[T]oo often, folks are more interested in talking up their product’s greatness instead of investing their time into making it great. And when a product’s story is driven by flashy pitch decks and loud marketing, one thing becomes clear: it was built with ego, not elbow grease. This approach to building products not only harms the brand’s integrity, but also exacerbates already underwhelming performance. It’s an obvious short-game approach." 1 The temptation to improve the advertising rather than the actuality of product performance is huge. It is the want of gall rather than a fully functioning conscience that saves some marketers from the kind of bad blood that brought down Theranos. 2 HR watches these masters of the message and memorises.
Business unit leaders, particularly those geographically distant from their corporate parents, can also fall into the CAR mode. When I first took on a corporate role, I was impressed by the steady gains one of our large manufacturing units made in people productivity. "Over endless Charminar cigarettes and cups of tea, between the time the first shift started at 6 am and the formal agenda for my visit began a couple of hours later, [the Head of Industrial Engineering] would share the intricacies and problems of improving productivity while contending with a throttling incentive scheme, a strong trade union, and a frequently unstable external environment." 3 Among the less kosher devices for depressing the denominator head-count (which resulted in effortless gains in the computed productivity) was to substitute permanent employees with apprentices (the Contract Labour Act was still believed to have fangs in those days). Once we started combining all people within the plant premises in the computation, the productivity gains melted away. After I moved to a multinational environment, imagine my deja vu when I found very similar devices used by local plant heads to pull khadi over the eyes of the otherwise very observant (and suspicious) overseas corporate controllers. Sleek presentations with selectively chosen facts and figures take the place of hard work, engineering prowess and risky union negotiations in convincing 'corporate' that productivity (and, similarly, other measures) are on track when they are anything but. HR watches these sly satraps and stores the secret.
The riskiest form of CAR is when production, sales, profits and other auditable information is cloaked in some form of gloss or fudged outright. Of course, vigilant and upright auditors should never permit such cancerous CARbuncles to pass unchallenged. We are all familiar with numerous instances, however, when auditors have permitted gloss or even garbage to pass unchecked. "[I]t was clear that [the Enron CFO] Fastow’s goal was pretty much the same as those financials…: to obfuscate and confuse. I can’t remember all the details, but I vividly recall … Fastow responding with lengthy, nearly unintelligible answers… And then something happened that… I would never forget. As the meeting was drawing to a close… Fastow … said, 'I don’t care what you say about Enron. Just don’t make me look bad. ' " 4 What all of us may not realise is that every exposed Enron conceals many more that get away. "We find that in any year averaged across the business cycle, 2.5% of large corporations are committing severe financial misreporting that auditors can detect… [D]uring an average year… 10% of large corporations are committing a misrepresentation, an information omission, or another misconduct that can lead to an alleged securities fraud claim…" 5 Fraud is an extreme example of CAR that takes us too far afield from communication used to draw a veil over employees’ eyes, which is the focus of this column. The point, of course, remains that HR, in organisations where fudging is frequent, absorbs the atmosphere and pours fudge on its CAR servings.
While HR may not have designed the first CAR, no one can fault the sedulous sincerity with which we picked it up. Before examining the dangers this anti-skill can pose, let’s look at the causes of using communication as a crutch.
Causes of communication overdependence
There is a perfectly plain reason for the reluctance of corporate managements and HR to change the reality instead of what they say about it. It takes much less time and mental effort. The outcome is predicted by Physics. "The fact that many fundamental laws of physics can be expressed in terms of the least action principle… led Max Planck to say that, 'Among the more or less general laws which manifest the achievements of physical science in the course of the last centuries, the principle of least action is probably the one which, as regards form and content, may claim to come nearest to that final ideal goal of theoretical research.' "6 Resting on the broad shoulders of Planck (and several of his predecessors), by substituting speech for solutions, we can strike a very advantageous bargain in the energy game of life.
That’s not all. A skill acquired just to shirk work, can be turned into a very useful device for offensive or defensive corporate political action. 7 Gunpowder too started off as a means of making fireworks more enjoyable before it found more lethal uses. I am not, here, prejudging the factual base of propaganda or the sincerity with which it is conveyed. In fact, Jason Stanley makes a cogent case that propaganda "… can consist in claims that are true and made sincerely." 8 The ethical ambiguity starts when the skill acquired for CARseva is weaponised for generating unquestioning support for the goals of the (imagined) corporation. 9 An even less laudable use can be to signal or justify intolerance for dissent with the top-given direction.10 Messenger and character murders are part of this arsenal as are air-brushing previous CXOs out of credit paintings.
The billboard space thus created is used (you guessed it) to paint in hagiographic images of previous bit players who are now in positions of sufficient power to claim credit for all previous positives. 11 This last makes CAR particularly attractive to CXOs keen to build up their myths of achievement and omniscience. One of the sturdiest ways to distinguish pseudo-science from the genuine variety is to put it through Popper’s test of falsifiability. 12 CXO reputations are no different. Unquestioning and unquestionable CAR puts CXOs’ brilliance and batting average beyond Popperian scrutiny through tried and proven communication sleights that make more critical narratives too dissonant to endure.
Costs to employees
Attractive as winning the narrative war alone might be to the top of the pyramid, the impact (or lack of it) on others in the organisation is far less so. We’ll review the three main losses CAR imposes on people.
1. Loss of Action
"… Newton announced the laws of motion.
Law 1. Every body perseveres in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by forces impressed.
Law 2. A change in motion is proportional to the motive force impressed and takes place along the straight line in which that force is impressed. " 13
The laws governing organisations and people are as uncompromising as F=ma. No change takes place without effort and work. In their absence, we can only choose a different CAR, belief in which just only as long as no one calls out the CAR-emperor’s lack of attire. Through it all, the lot of the employee stagnates. A classic example is positivity preaching which, instead of filling thirsty people’s glasses, tells them to revel in the dregs of water still remaining and, when that is over, to be grateful for the memories of what they once had! 14 From there, it is only a short step to 'the beatings will continue until morale improves'.
2. Loss of trust
"There’s no trust,
No faith, no honesty in men. All perjured,
All forsworn, all naught, all dissemblers." 15
Overuse of CAR currency brings far worse consequences than simply non-improvement. The fabric of trust that holds non-policed social organisations together is ripped apart and employees feel like the nurse (from Romeo and Juliet) quoted above. Francis Fukuyama captured the commercial advantages of trust well. "If people who have to work together in an enterprise trust one another because they are all operating according to a common set of ethical norms, doing business costs less." 16 And that’s not all. "Employees in high-trust organisations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance." 17 All our engagement-building measures are put at risk when trust totters. Is it really worth jettisoning all of these just for the ease of using a CAR instead of expending constructive effort?
3. Loss of self-awareness
"We are thoroughgoing liars, even to ourselves. Our most prised possession – language – not only strengthens our ability to lie but greatly extends its range… Evolutionary biology provides the foundation for a functional view of the subject – in this case, we lie to ourselves the better to lie to others…" 18
Leaders who are most successful in getting their CAR revered by others, believe it themselves. Self-deceivers skirt all the defences humans have erected over the ages against tell-tale signs of deception. As von Hippel and Trivers point out, "… self-deception evolved to facilitate interpersonal deception by allowing people to avoid the cues to conscious deception that might reveal deceptive intent. Self-deception has two additional advantages: It eliminates the costly cognitive load that is typically associated with deceiving, and it can minimise retribution if the deception is discovered." 19 Seems all win-win. Where’s the cost? As the same authors go on to conclude: "The most obvious cost of self-deception is loss of information integrity – with the resulting potential for inappropriate action and inaction – but there are likely to be other costs as well…. [T]his weapon of deception might be capable of being turned upon the self. " 20 In short, what starts off as wool over the eyes of others lands up as a blindfold across one’s own. A useful device for a messianic prophet, perhaps, but not for a CXO who is expected to be clearsighted and realistic: a builder of enthusiasm based on evidence and a creator of genuine roles and opportunities that are exciting and fulfilling.
The role of genuine communication
It has certainly not been my intention to convey the impression that corporate communication is unimportant. Not only is it as vital as the air we breathe but its absence would leave not just a vacuum but be substituted with noxious rumours and crafty conjectures. 21 The point we have been making is that, just like air cannot take the place of water and more substantive nutrients for the human body, communications cannot replace action on the ground.
The plea then is to analyse challenges on their own merits, benefitting from upward communication wherever possible, and identify the changes necessary, the agents who will carry them out and the collaborators whose support is essential. The last group, in particular, need to be consulted as well as brought into a circle of virtually real-time communication on progress. Other employees also need a hype-less heads-up on what’s afoot and intermittent progress updates. 'Under-promise and over-deliver' is a much-used principle that must be pressed into service yet again.
Post-implementation communication is best accompanied by hard result reports. Where the project is people-related, survey results before and after it is carried out may carry more weight than glowing slogans conjured up by HR. As Andrew Carnegie said: "As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do." People working in organisations do exactly the same.
- Ben McCraw, Can Great Marketing Save a Bad Product?, accpl, 11 November 2019.
- John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, Knopf, 2018.
- Visty Banaji, The Yin and Yang of People Productivity, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 45-52, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
- Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Smartest Guys in the Room, Penguin USA, Reprint edition, 2013.
- Alexander Dyck, Adair Morse and Luigi Zingales, How pervasive is corporate fraud?, Review of Accounting Studies, 5 January 2023.
- Alberto Rojo and Anthony Bloch, The Principle of Least Action: History and Physics, Cambridge University Press; 2018.
- Visty Banaji, Be a PAL, People Matters, 10 April 2023, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/business/the-road-less-travelled-37418).
- Jason Stanley, How Propaganda Works, Princeton University Press; 2016.
- Visty Banaji, Imagined corporate communities, People Matters, 10 May 2023, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/culture/imagined-corporate-communities-37771).
- Visty Banaji, Off With His Head, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 45-52, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
- Visty Banaji, The hags of Indian business, People Matters, 10 January 2023, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/watercooler/the-hags-of-indian-business-36542).
- Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Routledge Classics, 2002.
- James Gleick, Isaac Newton, Vintage, 2004.
- Visty Banaji, The Perils of Pressured Positivity, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 76-82, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Arden Shakespeare Edition, 2013.
- Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, Free Press, 1996.
- Paul J. Zak, The Neuroscience of Trust: Management behaviors that foster employee engagement, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2017.
- Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Perseus Books Group; Reprint edition, 2014.
- William von Hippel and Robert Trivers, The evolution and psychology of self-deception, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(1):1-16, 2011.
- William von Hippel and Robert Trivers, The evolution and psychology of self-deception, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(1):1-16, 2011.
- Visty Banaji, HR is a Contact Sport, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 127-134, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.