August 18, 2021
Authentic Communication Requires Vulnerability and a Willingness to Listen
Toyota recently made headlines when social justice watchdogs called them out for making $55,000 in donations to 37 politicians who objected to certifying the 2020 election. The backlash was fast and fierce. Consumers called for boycotts and it wasn’t long before the hashtag #ToyotaHatesDemocracy began trending on Twitter.
As it so often happens, Toyota’s official response only made things worse. Their statement was vague and included familiar corporate PR speak, saying, “Toyota supports candidates based on their position on issues that are important to the auto industry and the company.” This led many in the Twitterverse to retort that democracy must not have been one of the “issues” factored in. Though Toyota has since tried to walk back and amend its response, the general consensus is too little, too late.
If you think that because you’re not in a consumer-facing industry this kind of blowback can’t happen to you, think again. Professional services firms are increasingly expected to treat social issues as business issues. Whether it’s answering for how diverse your firm is (or isn’t) or explaining why you’ve chosen to do business with a controversial figure, there will come a time when you’re forced to respond to criticism.
What should you say if you have no idea what to say? Or if, like Toyota, the answer you do have isn’t good enough?
Our advice? Get real. Lead with vulnerability and humility. Listen and learn from the people around you in order to develop authentic communications that demonstrate a positive commitment to change.
Throughout this piece, we’ll look at the benefits of vulnerable communication as it relates to an emerging, salient example. Many businesses have recently added Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) metrics to their RFPs in an effort to hire firms who align with their values. The challenge? Most professional services firms are not diverse. So you will need to do some hard work to demonstrate you are truly committed to meaningful change and improvement.
With Vulnerability, Communications Can Be A Tool –Not a Shield
Transparency was the leadership theme throughout the 2010s. But today’s expectation goes even further. Leadership now requires a new level of vulnerability, openness, and skilled participation. Hiding behind your marketing messages or simple lip service is easier than ever to recognize. Your stakeholders, employees, and the public will see right through it.
With vulnerability, your communications can be a tool – not a shield. Vulnerability strengthens your position, increases your likelihood of winning over your prospective clients, and engages your employees in living up to your organizational values.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Many organizations use corporate speak not because they think it’s the best way to go, but to mitigate legal risk. There’s a balance here, though. You can still admit your firm isn’t perfect or that you don’t have all the answers to sensitive social issues without making statements that could pose legal risk. In the meantime, doing so will reduce skepticism and buy goodwill while you develop the meaningful messages and actions you ultimately want to deliver.
In the DE&I context, responding vulnerably and authentically to this kind of scrutiny might mean owning up to the fact that your firm has a long way to go. If your workforce is not diverse, don’t pretend it is. Instead, be sincere and admit you need to make improvements, and then, when you’re ready, lay out your plan to do just that.
Vulnerability Opens the Door to Collaborative Communication
Let’s be honest about this — if your leadership team lacks diversity, you shouldn’t be working on solving your DE&I shortcomings in a vacuum. Ask for help from people who have insights you don’t. Invite employees, stakeholders, clients, and even community members to weigh in on how to make measurable changes that will move your firm forward.
To go beyond the performative and gather strategic input that will help you make authentic improvements, you might need to take a hard look at your current state. Ask questions about what your workplace is like right now for members of underrepresented groups. Really listen to their experiences. For instance, question:
- Is your firm’s culture accessible and inclusive for women, Black, Latinx, AAPI, indigenous, disabled, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups?
- Do underrepresented groups have access to high value projects, clients and other work that affords them advancement opportunities?
- Are all members of underrepresented groups safe from harassment? Do they receive equal pay for equal work?
- What will it take to fill more seats at your leadership tables with people who represent a broad spectrum of diversity?
Resist the urge to ignore these uncomfortable or sensitive issues. Explore, debate, research, question, and reflect on these important topics with the people around you. Then, work together to formulate communications that convey the tangible improvements you plan to make.
Vulnerability Invites Greater Accountability to Your Values
Your organizational values should act as your guardrails and guiding principles in all the areas you strive for change. So when you’ve developed the communications about how your organization is working toward improving your DE&I metrics, you also need to be vulnerable enough to invite your employees and stakeholders to call you out if you don’t follow through on your good intentions.
Your employees, clients, and stakeholders may have better insight into your firm’s shortcomings than you do. Accountability gives them the freedom to speak up and tell you if they feel you aren’t making the positive changes you committed to. The best way to ensure they feel comfortable holding you accountable is to give them direct access to you and other leaders who have authority and power. Vulnerability and accessibility lead to accountability.
Need Help Harnessing the Power of Vulnerable Communications?
Responding to a DE&I metric on an RFP is just one example of how professional services firms are wrestling with how to communicate when they don’t know what to say. It can be challenging to drop the protective cloak of marketing language in favor of vulnerable communications — especially in conversations that make us uncomfortable or when legal risk is involved. But doing so will enable you to build stronger relationships with the employees, stakeholders, and clients whose buy-in and trust are essential in allowing you to reach your business objectives.
Whatever you do, don’t rely on tone-deaf marketing statements like Toyota did. Using communication as a tool instead of a shield — whether it’s responding to an RFP or releasing a public statement about a hot-button issue — shows empathy and will help you attract new clients and talented employees who are just as committed to social concerns as you are.
If you realize you need help harnessing the power of vulnerability in your communications strategies, just reach out. We’d love to hear from you.