It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it.

There’s a catchy 80s tune  by Bananarama which includes the lines “It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it. Ain’t what you say but the way that you say it”. Oddly I couldn’t get it out of my head this week.

As part of the research for an employer brand assignment, I had been watching a series of dvds of the leadership team of a well-known brand delivering an address to their employees…and I guess my mind wandered a little. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one.

During the talk, clad in suits and ties they took turns to stand behind a lectern with their backs to a Powerpoint deck and repeated a well-rehearsed series of phrases which included the terms wellbeing; diversity, engagement and employee satisfaction.

It reminded me how much these words have become a non-sensory, almost corporate version of Orwellian double-speak for emotive but oddly business-critical issues.

I’m sure that like me, most of the intended audience would have been lulled into tolerating this sort of 20-minute ritual by the status of the presenters, intonation and the gravity implied by the setting. Yet judging by the feedback, the intended audience clearly failed to understand most of what was being said.

I couldn’t help feeling that had at least some of the speakers, who I know to be passionate about their job and who had a difficult message to sell, injected at least a degree of realistic context, humanity and empathy into the piece both in words and delivery style, they would certainly have connected with the audience. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that they had been sitting at one of the tables facing the stage.

Perhaps if they had paid at least some attention to the economic backdrop against which the talk was taking place (severe financial challenges etc) and focused on the business case for both the business and the individuals, they would have come across as sympathetic yet capable of making informed decisions in the best interests of the business, a position which few would be able to disagree with.

Most of all, however, they needed to recognise, like most of us do from time to time, that the semantics matter. Despite the catchiness of the Bananarama tune, those 80s sirens were wrong. BOTH what you say AND the way you say it matters.

Firstly, it’s clear that the business, like many of their competitors, needs to find ways to turn speeches like this into  dialogue at a local level. The topics they were talking about have perception problems. They’re seen as luxuries for the good times. Employees under-fire are always looking for the devil in the detail. They don’t take apparent platitudes at face value. So it’s the role of the leadership team at all levels to point out that there’s the same expectation about ROI/return on investment for the inappropriately termed soft skills programmes as there is for any other initiative whether in terms of tapping into discretionary effort; innovation or just keeping the collective consciousness connected with the corporate strategy and motivated to keep going.

If the notion of wellbeing or diversity has truly been embraced by the board in spite of the economic climate and, heaven forfend, isn’t a ruse, then it’s something to shout about and the least they can do is make the effort to share what that means in language the audience can relate to and explain the business case as the executive team sees it. That’s what people expect from their leaders. They don’t appreciate compliance dressed up as favours. And they deplore corporate catharsis cloaked in the trappings of employee engagement and delivered by a speech accompanying a bi-annual survey that everyone suspects no-one really intends to action.

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