On communications strategy for conscious business (and dog poo)

Yesterday the Universe conspired to draw my attention once more to the difficulties of developing a successful communications strategy in the world today, especially for conscious coaches and mentors engaged in conscious business transformation of any kind. I love it when this happens. It happened like this. Bear with me, this is a long one.

I was on my way to a meeting in London, walking to the train station with my normal pace – fast – when I slipped over and landed flat on my backside – in a pile of dog poo!!! Disgusting and unpleasant. I had to retrace my steps and head home because no self respecting taxi was going to take me! I wasn’t going to get to my meeting on time so I reorganised a Skype. I popped a post onto Facebook about my misadventure – more to amuse than to be remotely insightful – and got out the rubber gloves.

Whilst I waited for my call, I read something on Facebook that really caught my attention and made me stop and think again about the subtle culture of fear that is pervading everyday life. One comment  caught my eye and made me frown. It said “thanks for having the confidence to post this”. It was one of those moments when you do a double-take. A WTF moment. I didn’t understand at all what he meant so I asked him why he thought it took confidence. His reply bothered me even more “just think it takes courage to be open about your “shameful” mistakes, at least that’s my experience in social channels”.

At this point my frown has become a wide-eyed stare. When something grabs you by the eyelashes like that, it’s always wise to step back and have a think about what feels so disconnected for you. That ‘WTF are you talking about?” moment is hugely valuable because these are the moments when you can gain real insight or understanding into how other people think and experience the world.

What bothered me was:-

  • Why would anyone think that sliding over in the street and posting about it on Facebook was remotely ‘shameful’?
  • Has ‘positive curation’ got so bad on Facebook that people are afraid to talk about genuine accidents or mistakes that happen in life for fear of being thought less capable or less able in some way?
  • What makes people so fearful of what others might think of them? Where does this fear come from?

I could easily have dismissed the comment. But this is someone I think of as a very well-rounded guy who’s smart. So I stopped and thought about fear, and why I think we have to be mindful and notice where fear is appearing in our own narratives, and the narratives of others.

At this point Skype rang, and I had a fascinating hour long conversation with a fellow conscious consultant about the challenges of doing business in this age, the difficulties of trying to turn corporate oil tankers, our desire to effect positive change, but the core problem of finding the clients who want to take action and who are held back because of intrinsic fear.

How is Volatility, Uncertainty, Change & Ambiguity affecting us?

If you’ve read any of my stuff, you’ll know that I believe we sit at a very pivotal time in human evolution. I’m not the first to say this. There is a whole ‘movement’ that is advocating and encouraging more conscious living and more conscious business. Whether you are coming at it from a point of view of climate change, sustainability, creating a circular or net-positive economy, or are an advocate of systems thinking and integral theory, the movement exists. Global companies like IKEA, Zappos, Semco, Unilever, Chipotle, Patagonia; new on the block startups like Morning Star, Buurtzorg – are all trying to operate in a new, more holistic, whole way as we step deeper into the 21st century. Leading thinkers like Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Richard Barrett all have tools and methodologies to help enable an emergent way of being and doing. The colloquial vernacular amongst ‘us’ is VUCA – a time of volatility, uncertainty, change and ambiguity.

At the very same time as this movement is emerging and growing apace, in the ‘West’ we have just voted for insularity, closed-mindedness, demagogy and command/control leadership in the shape of Brexit and Trump. You could argue we voted from fear; a bit like the man on Facebook.

With three decades behind me of managing brand reputations and writing communications strategy, I’m very aware of how to craft messages, and shape the narrative around how an organisation is perceived. I’m also very aware that what the public believes they crave most right now is authenticity, openness and transparency. Why then is that the very thing we most fear to show? And in the wake of Trump and Brexit, is it really what we want or is it just a narrative we are telling ourselves we want?

What the hell is going on here?

History suggests that whenever we step into times of uncertainty, two polarities occur. We step up with courage, or we sit down with fear.

Right now, the West has collectively and in the majority, sat down at the dinner table with fear as its main course. The United States has chosen a strong-arm populist whose sole focus is to fill government with business leaders of the ‘orange’ (to use an integral analogy) order. Self-interested leaders of conglomerates who are entrenched in the more toxic businesses examples that we have – both environmentally and culturally. No diversity agendas here, no equality or compassionate management, no co-creative collaboration. Just cold hard hierarchy.

You could say it was the same during the incredible human evolution and intellectual flowering of the Renaissance. It was accompanied by the Spanish Inquisition. Or the explosion of progress during the industrial revolution which was shortly followed by two world wars.

Why conscious ‘consultants’ need to hold their own nerve

I know there are many people who are in the ‘business’ of conscious leadership who are quietly asking themselves the question: have we got this wrong? Do people really not want to get past the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy and become their best selves? Do people really just want to be told what to do, be led by the nose and never take personal responsibility? Are we actually wasting our time on a dream and story we have constructed for ourselves because it resonates with us? Et voila! Fear is creeping into our own narratives.

acknowledgement_-graphic-created-by-making-magic-from-frederic-lalouxs-websiteHere’s the short answer; no, we’re not ‘wrong’ (is there such a thing as right or wrong – but that’s another post!). But the long answer is more complex and contains a number of distinct challenges. This is a unique time in human evolution. There are more different mindsets and worldviews on the planet than there have ever been at any one time in human history. If you study the wonderful illustration above and think about the timeline, it’s easy to see that for the majority of human history, we operated with the majority of people as serfs with a very few people (royalty and the nobility) in positions of power – the Impulsive or Red group. There are a lot of people still in this position on the planet, and thousands of years of mindset is hard to shift in an instant. If you look at the description of the leader in this environment, it may remind you of the way Trump operates – “my way or the highway’. Equally there are still many people living and working in a command/control environments in global corporations (achievement orange) alongside other more ‘evolved’ organisations like Patagonia or Zappos who have family values at their heart (pluralistic green).

The key issue which runs between people with different worldview and mindsets, is that as you evolve – as you change, not only do your values change, but also your language changes. You communicate in an entirely different language and tone. And it’s incredibly hard to understand one another. That’s why we are so often experiencing these ‘double take’ or ‘WTF’ moments right now. We just don’t understand one another.

Just as neoliberalism as a political policy has failed, so liberal communication and values have failed to energise and persuade those people who are several levels removed from where the liberal conversation is taking place. That doesn’t mean people don’t want the kind of values that are present in pluralistic green or evolutionary teal – it just means the people operating in those areas – like conscious coaches and consultants – haven’t always found the language that persuades or the structures and systems that support the change.

How we we craft communications strategies that connect?

So what can we do? As a communicator I have to focus on communications. On language and persuasion and connection. I believe that anyone who is involved in conscious evolution, helping organisations to shift to self-organised models, supporting personal transformation in leaders has first to look for those who are ‘ready to act’. Too much time is spent in trying to persuade people who can’t hear the message to take action they don’t yet believe in.

Even when looking for those who are ready to act, think carefully about your communications and how you position yourself. If you operate from an evolutionary or teal perspective but you are targeting corporates who mainly operate in achievement orange, there is no point trying got use the language of evolution. Your prospective clients are still focused on growth, performance, and competitive advantage. A better approach might be to showcase the commercial advantages of service-led approaches so that you start to ‘move the needle’ towards pluralistic, caring-sharing green!! See what I did there? ‘Move the needle’ is classic orange language!!

If you want to work with organisations and leaders who are truly ready to act, they are probably operating mainly in the pluralistic green space. This too has its communications and structural drawbacks. The total and utter demand for complete transparency, openness and honesty here as an antidote to hierarchical orange; the need to empathise and involve all the people – can sometimes lead to stagnation and inaction because full consensus is hard to achieve. So communication and conversation around the challenges of leadership and empowerment in changing structures and how to arrive at a consensus might resonate a great deal.

If all this sounds a little Machiavellian and reminiscent of the spin-doctoring of the 90s, remember it’s the intent with which you approach communications that matters. You are an evolved consultant or coach who is passionate about supporting organisations and people to be a positive part of a world that’s currently in a time of difficult transition. What you need to try to do is exactly that same as any other business looking for a target audience: understand the needs and language of the audience, and then find where they are and engage them in a conversation they can understand! Add in a healthy dollop of gentle activist persuasion, and you’re well on your way to helping organisations through a difficult period!

A period where we are in the s*** you might say!! Which finally brings me full circle to the start of my day. A simple accident and Facebook post grabbed my attention and reminded me about the importance of communication and paying attention to WTF moments. That experience probably opened the conversation between myself and another consultant to a much wider discussion than we might otherwise have had. And led to this post. Awareness is king (although content isn’t far behind!!!).

If you are a transformational consultancy or coaching organisation that is struggling to connect or find your ideal audience and you’ll like to have a longer discussion about communications and how to work with me, give me a call or get in touch by email at jenny@jenandersson.com or hop to my Contact Me page and drop me a note.

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