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The Secret to Building a Healthy Remote Work Culture in Polarizing Times

Internal Communications graphic
Illustration by OpturaDesign/Shutterstock

Trust is at an all-time low.

Trust in government, trust in the media, trust in science, trust in the medical system, and even consumer trust in your brand.

While there are many reasons for this growing distrust in institutions (media fragmentation, disinformation, a global pandemic, corruption, etc.), there’s no doubt of the impact on you as a leader – all this distrust is also breeding distrust in your organization. Staff don’t trust leaders. Division heads don’t trust one another. In fact, the #1 downloaded tool from our website is the BRAVING Inventory we created to help facilitate a discussion of Brené Brown’s talk on the Anatomy of Trust. Because as any good leader knows, low trust makes it that much harder to get sh*t done. Low trust breeds gossip, drama, and employee turnover. High trust is absolutely essential for high-functioning teams.

But taking the BRAVING inventory is only the first step in addressing low trust on your team or in your organization. The next step is good internal communications. And here’s where leaders struggle, as we hear time after time with our clients.

Many people assume that if they write (emails) and speak (to family and clients) every day, they naturally know how to communicate to their staff well. It’s just about using complete sentences and the right words.

While I will never discount the power of a well-crafted sentence, this is not a sufficient strategy for creating good internal communications. 

Good internal communications is the secret to rebuilding trust in your organization, especially during polarizing times. Good communications are values-based and intentional. Good internal communications are predictable, by which I mean, staff trust they are going to hear from you on a regular basis. And good internal communications prioritizes quality over quantity, and balances transparency with the need for discretion.

How can you, as a leader, build out internal communications that rebuild trust?

First, know your organization’s values and speak to them in every communication. In uncertain and polarizing times, values-driven leadership (and communication) is how you build trust. No one knows how things are going to turn out with the next presidential election or any number of crises in our world. And you (likely) have no control over those outcomes. The one thing fully in your control is how you communicate to your team. So embrace that by embracing the values of your team and/or organization.

This, of course, assumes you have clear, agreed-upon values with observable behaviors (because, as Brené Brown says, “values without observable behaviors are bullshit”). If you don’t, then you need to take the time to define them with your senior leadership team and with buy-in from your staff.

When you do so, please be honest, not aspirational. If you are a sales organization, it’s fine to say you value financial success, especially if that’s guiding your decision-making. If you are a nonprofit, it’s good to say you value financial sustainability, especially if fundraising and development is guiding what programmatic impact you can accomplish. Hopefully finances aren’t the only thing you value, but you should be honest that it’s part of the equation. As I say in my book Equity, “Insolvency does not advance equity.”

If you’re worried your organization should value certain things (like diversity, equity, and inclusion), but those values aren’t really guiding your decision-making, do not despair. It’s far easier to be honest about the organization or team’s existing values and then show how other values dovetail with those interests rather than trying to get a team or organization to change their values to what you think they should be. What do I mean by this? 

Years ago I was advising two DEI practitioners on how to talk to their CEO about why he needed to invest in DEI. They kept talking about disruption and the need to disrupt things, etc. I asked them, “What does your CEO value?” They took a full minute to consider this, and then one finally responded, “Harmony.”

“Well then, stop talking about disruption,” I said. “You’re triggering his fight-or-flight response every time you do. Instead, show how DEI can lead to greater harmony.” Sure, it might destabilize some things for a while, but good DEI should lead to greater alignment and harmony in an organization. Not through conformity, but by having different voices singing from the same song sheet.

Once you’re clear on your team’s or organization’s values, the next step is to get clear about what you’re asking them to do. This means knowing how the information you’re sharing affects their day-to-day jobs or their career decisions. If it doesn’t, then perhaps you don’t need to share it. Good communication isn’t sharing anything and everything. It’s about sharing what staff need to know to make informed decisions about their work and their careers. 

What if you don’t know the answer to something they have a right to know, like whether a new merger will lead to layoffs? Then you can simply share with staff, “here’s what I know and can share and here’s what I don’t.” You can also develop messaging on why you can’t share certain things, like the details on one employee’s departure (a request we’ve heard from staff at more than one client organization; we often have to explain that it would be a gross abuse of power for leadership to speak about one employee publicly). This messaging should not be a legal or CYA document; rather it should be values-based, like the need to protect privacy and for leadership to use its power responsibly. Evoking values allows leaders to draw boundaries around what they share while preserving trust.

Third, you should create a regular schedule for internal communications. At Brevity & Wit, I send a Monday Update every week. Sometimes it’s short or light-hearted, and sometimes it’s long or deep (on a great writing day it’s short and deep). Rarely do I get a reply. But multiple consultants have told me how they look forward to that email in their inbox every Monday at 8am. Engagement is not the metric of success here; rather the impact will be evident in employee surveys of trust and an informal sense of far less drama in the organization. The Monday Update also serves as a behavioral trigger, reminding folks in our remote-based world that the workweek has started. Our consultants have shared some of these Monday Updates with clients, modeling how regular communications can build trust in leadership.

Lastly, invest in internal communications – both time and money. It’s shocking to me how often there’s no formal person or department responsible for internal communications in mid-size organizations. I suppose they think it’s a function more suited to large organizations, but every organization, no matter how big or small, needs someone formally responsible for internal communications. And if not, then you should outsource the function to a trusted advisor, like one of our communications strategists who can work as a fractional staff member to help guide and craft your internal communications strategy. 

An internal communications professional is not a mid-level manager who you direct to write your company newsletter (though they may do that, too). They are a trusted advisor who needs access and a voice in leadership meetings. They need to be privy to decision-making at the highest level if they are to help you roll out change, reduce burnout, and rebuild trust. They can help advise you on how to address thorny staff issues or talk about the latest world crisis affecting your staff or your work. They can also help leaders map out the different ways to communicate (email, Slack, meetings, video calls) and when to use each and why, something that’s critically important in developing a healthy remote work culture

In a world full of disinformation and polarization, good internal communications is the life raft your team needs right now. Do whatever it takes to prioritize internal communications this year. Your future self will thank you for it.