The power of words – and the harm of careless ones

There is little doubt that social media has changed the landscape on how organisations control and communicate their messages.

The online world is full of nastiness, narcissism and the misinformed. With so much at stake, it is important that you – and your business – control your brand message with a steady hand.

Donald Trump’s use of Twitter offers a masterclass, almost daily, of Things Leaders Should Never Say.

Take his comments about injecting disinfectant to treat COVID-19. “The disinfectant knocks it out in a minute. One minute,” said the president of the United States of America in a press conference, which he later doubled down on in his social media accounts. Days later, a man in Arizona died after taking Trump’s advice.

The impact of impetuous, self-serving remarks from leaders, be they politicians or business leaders, can have dire consequences and harm already volatile situations.

The fallout for the individual and the company can take years to repair and recover. What are the danger signs and how can foot-in-mouth syndrome be avoided?

Window to the world

There is little doubt that social media has changed the landscape on how organisations control and communicate their messages. Greater transparency and a power shift towards individuals to influence the conversation has forced business leaders to engage with stakeholders on a more intimate level than they were used to in the past.

The problem is not everyone is equally comfortable using social media and there are grave risks involved when individuals slip up as they can now be “judged” instantly, and their mistakes shared widely online.

Added to this is research showing that the general ease and immediacy of posting on social media sites makes people more prone to knee-jerk reactions that can appear careless at best and rude or defamatory at worst.

Reputations on the line

The risk to business of a leader’s impetuous remark can be more than just reputational damage for the individual, says Gary Waldon, an author and transformational change specialist who helps organisations improve their productivity.

Waldon says employees look to the CEO and senior management for cultural and ethical direction.

“Employees want to feel proud of the organisation they work for and a lot of the time their engagement with the business comes down to the trust they feel in the values and behaviour of the CEO,” he says.

If that trust is undermined by some intemperate remark from senior management, or they demonstrate there is clearly misalignment between their own values and the values of the employees, then you’ve lost them and you’ve lost their loyalty, says Waldon.

The shockwaves from a throwaway comment also affect other stakeholders, customers and investors.

The banking royal commission saw several heads roll including that of former NAB CEO Andrew Thorburn, who showed how particularly out of touch he was with stakeholders when he characterised the “fees-for-no-service” scandal as “nothing more than carelessness”.

It was a comment that fueled a fire which saw 88 per cent of shareholders voting down the company’s remuneration report at the AGM in 2018 – the largest protest vote recorded in Australian corporate history.

Narcissists rule, ok?

Organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has made the study of incompetent, narcissistic leaders a focus of his research. He offers an insight into why leaders like Trump et al behave the way they do, saying that the things we value in our leaders such as charisma and confidence do not equal competence. In fact, there is little overlap.

In a recent TedX talk he gave at the University of Nevada, Chamorro-Premuzic said that encouragement given to potential leaders helps to promote a narcissistic mindset.

Mantras such as: “Love yourself, no matter what”, “Don’t worry about what people think of you”, “create leaders who are unaware of their limitations … They see leadership as an entitlement and they lack empathy and self-control, so they end up acting without integrity and indulging in reckless risks.”

Chamorro-Premuzic says we should stop falling for these types and instead value people who have competence, humility and integrity. We would also end up with more female leaders – such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – as scientific studies show women exhibit these traits far more than men.

Press the pause button

Self-control is an essential ability for any leader, yet leadership qualities focus so much on results and behaviour that character and psychological make-up are relegated to the “nice to have” list – to all our detriment.

Self-control is a skill that can be learnt and practiced, says Waldon, who offers tips on how to press the pause button before sounding off.

If you are asked to make a public comment or you’re proactive about offering one, apply the ABC risk analysis, advises Waldon.

Assess the risk. It’s critical to ask yourself why are you engaging? Are you the right person to speak?

What are the benefits? And what is the social climate, the context for your comment?

Breathe. There is fast and slow thinking. Our impulse is to respond quickly but take time to consider and remove the impetuous part of any message.

Communicate. Is what you have to say a short-term, easy message or is it a long-term strategic response? Words have power, choose the right ones.

“Then reflect on the impact of what you’ve said. How did that go? How did the audience respond? If there was a storm in the response, how do I make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes again.”


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