In a previous post we proposed six essential questions leaders can ask reflexively to develop a Communication-Based Leadership mindset. In keeping with the principles of CBL, each question focuses a leader on the people with whom they will engage, and each question is arguably of equal importance. We must understand the issue (the what) about which we will communicate and key publics (the who) made up of people who share interest in that issue. Equipped with that knowledge we can select how, when, and where to communicate most effectively.
Before engaging however, we must also decide why we will communicate. That is, we must define our goals and desired outcomes so we can communicate intentionally and deliberately to achieve them.
Today’s post is about how to answer the question, why will we communicate? What is our intended outcome?
There are three general ways to define engagement goals in context of CBL. We can influence a key public’s state of awareness of an issue; preserve, neutralize, or crystalize a key public’s perception of an issue; and either shift or build upon a key public’s orientation toward an issue. In many cases, we may want to achieve a combination of two or even all three of these.
Implications of Influence
Before discussing each of these possible outcomes though, let’s briefly consider the meaning of the term influence.
One enduring truth of CBL is everything is a communication activity. Everything we say and do communicates something to somebody somewhere, which means it is impossible to lead without communicating. When we communicate, we influence those with whom we communicate in some way, so a corollary to this principle is it is impossible to lead without influencing.
On the face of it, this may seem both obvious and innocuous. After all, it is commonly understood that a leader’s purpose is to rally people around a common cause and guide them to achieve shared goals. However, while leaders by definition influence their followers, there is great danger as a leader in taking an at-all-costs approach to influencing others. That is the path to dark, toxic, and narcissistic leadership and tends to violate another truth of CBL, enduring leadership success requires trust.
If we can’t lead without communicating and we can’t communicate without influencing, then we must do both in an intentional, deliberate, and principled way. With that in mind, we encourage leaders to draw upon one or more proven frameworks such as servant leadership, transformational leadership — or the principles of Communication-Based Leadership.
To build trust relationships that lead to enduring leadership success, it is essential to understand those we will engage and the issues about which members of those publics share a common interest. Yet our capacity to communicate is finite. To get the most out of that capacity, we must define the outcomes we hope to achieve before we engage.
On then to discuss three ways to define engagement goals in context of CBL and achieve them by influencing people in a principled way. Each of the following goal-setting lenses, as well as the NoCabulary definitions of publics and key publics, are drawn indirectly from James E. Grunig’s situational theory of publics.
Not all goals are about people, but nearly every goal involves people. For example, our organization’s goal may be to increase the percentage of recyclable waste that can be processed for recycling. But that goal cannot be achieved without bringing people into the process.
CBL Goal-Setting Lens One: A Key Public’s State of Awareness
In general a public’s state of awareness regarding any given issue can be categorized as latent, aware, or active.
Members of a latent public have yet to recognize how an issue relates to or might affect them. Members of an aware public has begun to form perceptions of how an issue relates to them. Members of an active public have begun to develop their perceptions of an issue (perhaps supported by beliefs, opinions, and attitudes) and have become involved in some way.
In terms of goal setting, we might engage a public to shift its state of awareness from latent to aware, aware to active, or perhaps from active back to aware.
For example, if we want people to recycle their trash, we need them to be aware of how to do it. If they are not participating or doing it improperly, we must understand why. Perhaps the reason is a lack of understanding of the process, in which case we would need to clarify. Or perhaps people find the process is intrusive or impractical, in which case we would need to address those concerns to their satisfaction.
Finally, they may simply be opposed to the entire idea, in which case we may choose not to prioritize them for engagement. If a public’s shared interest in an issue is resistance or opposition, odds are we are in competition with that public to influence the unformed perception of other publics.
This brings us to our second way to define engagement goals in context of CBL.
CBL Goal-Setting Lens Two: A Key Public’s State of Perception
From the perspective of a leader or organization, a public’s perception of a given issue can be categorized as either favorable, unfavorable, or unformed. That is, for, against, or undecided.
Preserving favorable perception is important; we don’t want to lose that support. Likewise, neutralizing unfavorable perception is necessary. Often this cannot be done through direct engagement, yet leaders freuently prioritize engagement with those who already have a favorable perception of an issue and then with those whose perception of the issue is unfavorable. We tend to appeal to those who like us and argue with those who don’t — yet the former needs little encouragement and the latter is unlikely to change.
Arguably the most advantageous outcome is to crystalize perception among those whose perception has yet to form. While we might engage those who have a favorable perception of an issue to capitalize on their support, we are in competition with those who hold an unfavorable perception to crystalize unformed perception in a favorable way.
The danger of leaders sacrificing our values to create a desired influence comes into play here. If we use deception, obfuscation, relative truths, or alternative facts to build our case, we may succeed in crystalizing unformed perception favorably in the near term, but will likely compound opposing beliefs, opinions, and attitudes that lead to opposing behavior in the long term.
This brings us to the third way to define engagement goals in context of CBL.
CBL Goal-Setting Lens Three: A Key Public’s Orientation
A public’s orientation on an issue can be described in terms of beliefs, opinions, and attitudes that drive its behavior. In a sense, these characteristics stack. Beliefs inform opinions and opinions inform attitudes, which ultimately manifest in behavior.
For example, members of a public may share the belief that the environment must be protected and the opinion that individuals must recycle their trash. Yet members of that public may have an attitude that rinsing and sorting their recyclables requires too much time and effort, so exhibit the behavior of discarding items into the blue bin that are contaminated and cannot be processed for recycling.
If we find common ground in one area, we can build upon it to both strengthen the areas below it and create change in the areas above. The most challenging but best way to create lasting behavior change is to find common ground in beliefs, opinions, or attitudes, and build up from there.
Continuing the previous example, we might build on established beliefs and opinions to encourage a change in attitude that results in people cleaning their recyclable waste before discarding it.
Creating change in behavior is the simplest; it can be done through enticement and even force or coercion if desired. Creating behavior change without building on beliefs, opinions, and attitudes has two significant shortfalls however. First, once the source of enticement, force, or coercion is removed, a public will likely return to its old behaviors. Second, the use of enticement, force, or coercion does not build loyalty, but instead fosters resentment and at the very least compounds a public’s existing beliefs, opinions, and attitudes to create a corresponding increase in the original behavior.
Crafting Engagement Goals
In context of Communication-Based Leadership, goal setting is about people. We must understand what we are communicating about and who we are communicating with in order to determine why we will engage.
A public is one or more people with shared interest in a given issue. A key public is a public whose interest in that issue is likely to influence the ability of a leader or organization to achieve its goals. From the perspective of a leader, our key publics may be members of our own team, clients and customers, potential clients and customers, or even groups who oppose our organization.
No matter who our publics are, we must understand what outcome we hope to achieve before we engage them. Are they a latent public, unaware of the issue we are dealing with? Are they an aware public that perceives us or our organization favorably? Unfavorably? Or has yet to crystalize its perception? What are the beliefs, opinions, and attitudes that drive the public’s behavior?
Determining these things will prepare you to chose how, when, and where to engage key publics and enable you to build trust relationships with them that lead to enduring leadership success.
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Cliff holds a PhD in organization and management with a specialization in leadership. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he completed operational deployments to Fallujah, Iraq and Kandahar and Helmand, Afghanistan. He has led multi-national and inter-agency teams including approximately one year on loan from the Corps as Director of Policy, Planning, and Outreach for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. He also directly advised the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on public and media engagement regarding national security matters for two years as Special Assistant for Public Communication. Today he puts that experience to work helping people become the kind of leaders they would want to follow.