The power of consistency
It was Oscar Wilde who said, ‘consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.’
That might be true in some walks of life, but during uncertain times, consistency is a powerful lever of success. That’s because consistency breeds trust. Trust breeds confidence. And confidence is what will unify your people through this crisis and help keep your organization’s unique culture alive.
A few months into the pandemic, we’re currently exiting what we’ve been calling the immediate response phase. Companies have scrambled around for facts; they’ve listened to and informed their people; and they’ve done their best to adapt against a changing backdrop.
We find ourselves in the throes of the next stage: bridging to business as usual (BAU). Companies and governments are giving it their all to work out not only how to get back to the workplace, but how to get back to work. Because being there and being engaged aren’t one and the same.
As we settle back into BAU, we’ll soon enter the third stage: the new normal, a now-overused phrase which nobody really understands. A great memo penned by Oaktree’s Howard Marks lamented any attempt to predict what’s next. Human behavior, psychology and economics are not exact sciences, and this isn’t a carefully controlled lab experiment. So the interconnections shaping the pandemic’s impact on individuals, organizations and societies (from a single cough to an entire bailout plan) make it impossible to map and predict.
To me, this uncertainty means that while we should be considering all possibilities, we must stop putting pressure on ourselves to plan intricately for the world of six months’ time. Remember: nobody predicted this in November 2019. And if they did, they would probably have been laughed off the conspiracy theory internet forum. How very unimaginative.
Instead, let’s focus on consistency. Consistency in how we choose to act and how we talk about it. This consistency will become the glue that binds your people together towards the new normal – whatever that might look like.
The tools in your communications arsenal are a good place to start. You probably have a messaging framework, value proposition and/or brand essence written during more comfortable times. They might feel less relevant right now. But the good news is that they don’t have to be perfect, and with a few tweaks it can act as a strong platform to frame how you act and what you say. Let’s use Airbnb CEO’s Brian Chesky’s recent open letter to employees (announcing 25% layoffs) to see how this might work.
1. Shape messaging with your brand essence
Back in the heady days when vacations involved leaving the home, Airbnb defined its brand essence around two pillars: storytelling and belonging. It’s tricky to see how these can be applied to the all-round ‘bad news’ story of mass redundancies. But Chesky’s letter worked hard to tell a human story, the arc of which spanned the founding team’s original 2008 mission to the present day. The story combined emotive language: “What we are about is belonging, and at the center of belonging is love…” as well as hard facts about things that matter: “We will cover 12 months of health insurance through COBRA.” A sense of community and belonging also came through in many of the actions they’ve taken to guide and encourage those leaving, like the alumni talent directory and employee-offered alumni support.
2. Underpin your actions with your values
Your organization’s set of values should shape both your actions and the words you use to describe them. This will lend a strong sense of consistency for both your people and external audiences, too. But with values like ‘Be a Host’ and ‘Embrace the Adventure’, it might be hard to see how Airbnb’s upbeat platitudes could frame a message around mass layoffs.
But in many ways they do. Airbnb define their ‘Be a Host’ value as being caring, open and encouraging, each descriptor reflected in such statements as, “We felt Monday [as a final day] would give people time to begin taking next steps and say goodbye — we understand and respect how important this is.” They define ‘Embrace the Adventure’ as showcasing the need to be determined and creative, attitudes which Chesky brings in throughout his letter: “The world needs human connection now more than ever, and I know that Airbnb will rise to the occasion.” While not perfect, Airbnb’s values clearly help to frame the organization’s decisive actions and how Chesky describes them.
3. Stick bravely to what you know
We see many angles where Chesky doesn’t purport to know the answers: “When you’ve asked me about layoffs, I’ve said that nothing is off the table…” But in this, he’s consistent. He doesn’t make promises he cannot keep, and this letter appears to be part of a suite of leadership communications rolled out in a regular cadence that follow this mantra.
Trust Barometer research from Edelman shows that people trust their employers far more than they do the government, so Chesky is right to take this responsibility and expectation seriously. Even if you don’t have much to say, say something and always admit to the gaps. Consistency is more important than perfection.
All this said, Airbnb’s letter is still a moment in time. What the letter doesn’t - and cannot - do is show what happens in the mid- to long-term. Consistency and repetition build reputation and recovery. Combining consistent action with consistent communication will help to prompt high performance within the new normal at Airbnb and throughout the economy.