This post was also featured on Forbes.
When the initial results came in from the Worldcom Public Relations 2019 Confidence Index, I shared the same concerns as my colleagues involved in the study. We used Advanced Symbolics' artificial intelligence technology to scrub the opinions of almost 60,000 business leaders from 15 countries to find out a measure of their confidence for the year. It wasn't good. Overall, business leaders are 21% less confident than they were last year, and in the U.S., they were 51% less confident.
I want to say that we were surprised. But when one considers the business climate today — the global trade wars, tariffs, the political vortex of doom that is the United States, the raging international soap opera that is Brexit, natural disasters as a result of global warming, protests in Hong Kong, famine, re-emergence of long-dormant diseases — I suppose confidence may be a hard sell.
It's easy to point to the external conditions causing a decline in confidence, and we certainly saw that in the data. But the data told us a more interesting story than only that. Much of what leaders discussed when relating to their confidence in the success of their business was internal. Leaders talked about upskilling and reskilling their employees' expertise as an essential step in retaining them. They discussed significant concerns about inappropriate behavior in the workplace, sexual harassment and the fallout these incidents can have on the organization as a whole, as well as their inability to manage a crisis like that should it happen. Beyond these logistical concerns, there is a lack of confidence in their whole relationship with employees, and one could even deduce it to the work environment in general.
As a partner in the Worldcom Public Relations Group, and sitting U.S. regional president at my agency, I view this as a fundamental communications problem — and one that marketers and communications professionals can work to correct. If employees are the most important topic on business leaders' agenda, then communications and marketing must work inward every bit as much, if not more so, than outward.
Organizations should take a global lack of confidence as a wake-up call and identify the cracks in the foundation that is causing concern. And that foundation begins with leadership. Leaders must look at themselves and ask hard questions about what they are observing within the organization.
A culture that is fueled by confidence is one where leaders are looking at the big picture and making decisions based upon a strategic course they have laid out. Decisions, in other words, are systemic — they weather any number of situations or crises that may turn up. Leaders who are not oriented around a strategic direction will find themselves making reactive decisions as issues flow in, working to resolve crisis after crisis. The first step to avoiding an organizational crisis is to align leadership around the strategic direction of the company so that decisions are made naturally according to this alignment, easily facilitating the unknowns that arise.
Another crack in the foundation may be purely surrounding inadequate communication with teams. A confident culture is one that has top-down transparency, free-flowing communication between leadership and staff and among teams, and minimal silos that barricade teams from one another. Confident cultures work in flow with one another, like a river — everyone following the same general cultural current built upon the organization's strategic direction. Sure, rocks and branches get in the way, but if the team is the current, the river simply goes around. Confidence breaks down when teams don't know what each other is doing and leadership keeps relevant and important information from the staff. Everyone should be aligned with the organization's strategic direction, and communication channels need to remain open.
Confident organizations trust their people. Leaders who build a culture of professional support and trust among their teams will empower them to chart their own destiny within the strategic direction leadership sets forth. Organizations failing in confidence may have leadership that doesn't trust their staff, or that does not allow them to rise up and take personal responsibility and accountability in the organization.
Confidence is subjective and spread by example. Confident leaders beget confident employees. As communication professionals, it is our responsibility to align leadership internally around instilling confidence within the organization so that it can be positioned to succeed in a volatile marketplace.
Be the change you want to see. If you want confidence in your organization, you need to be confident. Nothing is stopping you from directly affecting the topics that are concerning you. If you wish to retain staff, build an environment in which they can thrive. If you want staff to be more skilled, train them. Internal communications are less about "communicating" with your organization and more about behaving in a way that communicates with your organization.
Data from projects like the Confidence Index alone does little to help lead your organization toward success. The data must yield information, and that information must be acted upon for it to be useful. What is the story in your organization? What are the topics going around the hallways that inform how confident people are in their future? How can you better focus on the big picture, create a unified strategic flow for the organization, and align your teams with that flow?
It is the role of the business leader to instill confidence in their organizations, and no matter what is happening in the world around them, they can be the change through their behavior and outlook. Confidence is infectious.
And the world could use a bit of it right now.