Why companies need keystone communicators - comment

The pain is where it isn’t.
Business leaders spend a fifth of their time dealing with workplace disagreements, says Westring. Picture: contributed.Business leaders spend a fifth of their time dealing with workplace disagreements, says Westring. Picture: contributed.
Business leaders spend a fifth of their time dealing with workplace disagreements, says Westring. Picture: contributed.

Those are the immortal words of my Morningside chiropractor. “It” is the real problem in my lower back, disguised by a pain under my left shoulder. Loosen up the shoulder and I feel great for an hour or two, but work on the lower back and I feel like I could perform a gymnastic floor routine worthy of Simone Biles.

In business communication, the pain is often where it isn’t too. When someone comes to me for public speaking advice, they might be preoccupied with how to use their voice or their posture, but scratch the surface and it’s often unresolved conflict and the resulting self-doubt holding back a perfectly articulate person.

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At a recent training workshop I led for the Tribe Women entrepreneurial community in Portobello, a show of hands indicated that a third of participants had left a job due to unresolved conflict and around a quarter having taken no steps to resolve that. I count myself among those who raised their hands on both counts.

According to CBI research, business leaders spend about a fifth of their time dealing with workplace disagreements and yet work-related stress accounts for more than half of all sick days in the UK.

So what makes it so hard for a CEO to reverse a poor decision? Why do colleagues rationalise their past behaviour until they’ve regained the moral high ground and how is it that senior managers can ignore bullying in the face of high staff turnover?

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Part of the answer lies in managers attempting to deal with the symptoms of conflict, such as whether to transfer a disgruntled employee to another team, rather than addressing their root cause, but overlooking the fact that employees may be dealing with competing priorities, over-commitment of resources, or organisational change, only creates further resentment.


I’d argue that every workplace has a culture problem, because culture isn’t static. You’re either actively creating the conditions for employees to contribute to something meaningful or you’re not.

The incoming CEO who imagines that sticking a few tired Henry Ford quotes in a presentation will rally the troops grossly underestimates what it takes to motivate the average human being or to overcome corruptive conduct.

As an aside, the next time you reach for a Henry Ford quote for a speech, you might want to find out why Hitler kept a portrait of the industrialist above his desk. Claiming to work towards a higher purpose is meaningless if you’re not willing to live that purpose in every decision.

The leadership of Turing Pharmaceuticals were on a mission to develop therapies for patients suffering from serious and neglected diseases, but were somehow still okay with upping the price of their generic HIV drug by 5,000 percent.

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True leaders are willing to roll up their sleeves when conflict arises, because if they don’t give themselves permission to speak up they’re silencing everyone else too.

In a 2009 study of behavioural responses to racism, participants predicted that they would be very upset when faced with an overtly racist act, but when the scientists engineered exactly that scenario the same people showed little emotional distress and continued to include “the racist” in their social interaction.

Toxic culture does not necessarily self-correct and harmful social norms can override the human instinct for justice, resulting in those affected, like the women in my workshop, simply abandoning ship.

In nature, keystone species keep an ecosystem in balance. Remove sea otters from a kelp forest and sea urchins run riot.

My observation is that respected leaders are keystone communicators. They speak with clarity, consistency and compassion, instilling a sense of purpose and collegiality in their workforce and acknowledging that it takes more than free coffee and some succulents for human beings to learn, bond, strive and achieve.

Laura Westring is founder of leadership communications agency Vocalcoach, leads public affairs at Amiqus and is a former European Commission speechwriter