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 regarding the actual outcomes.
And settling for just explaining the value of communication to non-communication professionals is often a vain pursuit.
There must be another way to encourage coworker advocacy.
The Sales 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. The Head of Sales might look to the Sales Department to share 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 lousy job recruiting, don’t they share at least a little responsibility?
What about coworkers working with order fulfilment in some capacity? The best sales pitch arguably has a satisfied customer referring new customers. So, isn’t a 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 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 coworker 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 concerning 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 challenging 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 breaks down.
Communication is Everyone’s Concern
Like everything in a business relates to sales, everything a business does or says is communication. 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 concerns everyone and everything in a business. However, many coworkers cannot see their part in the communication process.
Whereas coworkers 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 greatly about communication — while the rest of the organisation doesn’t. The result is top-down communication internally and conflicting messages externally. this is a recipe for quickly eroding coworker and customer trust. And this is how businesses become stale, and brand values are given a false echo.
It’s a toxic brew, to be sure.
A Specific Communication Problem
Overall, this type of challenge is unique to communications and HR.
The legal department, for instance, doesn’t have this problem; coworkers intuitively understand that they are individually responsible to comply with laws and regulations. Most coworkers 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 most crucial 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 coworkers not seeing themselves as participatory and responsible for the overall communication of the company or organisation?
Tenets of Coworker Advocacy
The first insight is often the most overlooked: Few coworkers have been briefed on their actual role in advocacy.
Because let’s face it — advocacy is rarely clear for anyone except the CEO.
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 organisation’s stories on social media? Or is it about some infringement on freedom of speech to get everyone speaking in unison for the organisation’s greater good?
Well, no. That’s not how coworker advocacy works.
Communication brings something that other organisational functions cannot bring to the table — authenticity.
Your coworkers might be at fault for not recognising their communication responsibilities, but forcing compliance will only make them less useful as advocates for the organisation.
Without authenticity, all communication breaks down.
Coworker Advocacy = Culture and Leadership
Coworkers must want to be great communicators.
Coworkers must want to go the extra mile.
They want to endorse their workplace, 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, and 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 organisation.
If coworkers neglect their responsibilities as advocates, they’re not on board 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 coworkers are “protecting” the organisation.
Culture: How do we change the narrative? To replace an existing narrative, coworkers deserve a better narrative that works better for them than the existing one. “I am a salesperson and a better communicator than my competitors.”
Collaboration: How do we reinforce the narrative? Coworkers must get narrative-specific training which is highly engaging and rewarding — and a safe space for practical experimentation.
Accountability: How do you support the narrative? Coworkers must get positive feedback that is direct and clear whenever the new narrative is applied successfully. Positive reinforcements typically work best.
Maturity: How well do our narratives work? The organisation must measure 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.
Bonus Resource: The Social Objects Workshop (SOW)
The Social Objects Workshop (SOW)
To promote word-of-mouth for your brand, you need an idea about what social objects to create content around.
Social object = what people talk about with each other. A social object could be a thing, a person, an event, a concept etc.
For your brand, there are different types of social objects:
The workshop: In the first half, spend a few minutes on each type of social object. Write each idea as one sentence on a Post-It starting with, “Have you heard…”. In the second half, run through the ideas discussing, “Is this something real people would say?”