Anna Hazare’s campaign and what we can learn

Much has been spoken and written on the 74 year old crusader who is giving the Indian government a hard time with his anti-corruption Bill. The campaign has not just captured the imagination of the masses but the world is watching with awe as one man is attempting to overcome a systemic rot. Visuals of people wearing Gandhi caps with the words ‘I am Anna Hazare’, waving Indian flags and thronging venues across the nation are now common place.

I am particularly impressed by the simplicity of the message, the positioning and appeal of the campaign and the lessons that internal communicators can learn from this experience.

Focusing on the pain point: If you look closely at the campaign it isn’t backed by a million dollar advertising burst or a clever social media strategist who crafted a long term program. However the measurable impact he has made will put even the best marketer to shame. Although some believe that there is a ‘foreign’ hand or certain ‘vested interests’ trying to destabilize the nation through his campaign! Anna, according to me is addressing a core issue that has caused so much angst over the years and continues to frustrate us each day as citizens.  He has channelized the fury of the masses into one big tsunami wave.

Distinguished credentials: He may not have come this far without building credibility and keeping his image intact despite repeated attempts to malign him. Anna served in the army and fought for the nation in the Indo-Pak war. He is credited for turning around and building India’s first self-sustainable model village, Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra, India. His work hasn’t gone unnoticed either – winning him the Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, India’s third and fourth highest civilian awards as well as the Care International Award.

Someone like you and me: His direct approach, his ability to confront issues and his courage to take on the corrupt appeals to many. Since culturally we respect hierarchy and avoid breaching topics that are discomforting his stance does appear to be refreshingly different. What also draws people to him is also his simplicity as an individual. Here is a person who holds no assets and sleeps in a temple when billions of rupees are siphoned in countless scams across the country.

Connection and community: His cause cuts across generations, classes and communities. While media claims that the middle class make up a sizable chunk of his support base calls by religious leaders to shun his campaign has fallen on deaf ears. Most participants in rallies belong to Generation Next who can relate to a leader that believes in ethics and progress.

Anna’s campaign isn’t about anti-graft as much as it is about preserving prosperity. And it isn’t only about making the country prosperous but to bring a cultural shift from ‘chalta hai’ (literal translation from Hindi – let it be) to transparency and accountability.

To understand prosperity let us turn to the Legatum Index, the world’s only global assessment of wealth and wellbeing.

In the 2010 ranking India comes at 88 among 110 countries.  The Index defines prosperity as both wealth and wellbeing, and finds that the most prosperous nations in the world are not necessarily those that have only a high GDP, but are those that also have happy, healthy, and free citizens. The Prosperity Index™ accounting for over 90 percent of the world’s population is based on 89 different variables, each of which has a demonstrated effect on economic growth or on personal wellbeing.

The statistics on India clearly indicate why Anna’s campaign does hit the right chord –

  • Only 13% of people feel able to voice their opinion to a public official, indicating a low level of public participation in the political system
  • 42% approved of the country’s efforts to help the poor
  • Only 36% of people had helped a stranger in the previous month indicating relatively poor community relations.
  • Average 21% of Indians believe they can trust others. (2009 survey)
  • Only 68% of people are satisfied with their freedom to choose what they do with their lives (2009 survey)

Yesterday I accompanied my father to meet with his former professor Samuel Paul, a renowned economist in his early eighties. A founder member of Public Affairs Centre, a Bangalore based governance think-tank, his pioneering citizen report card is now a proven methodology used by many nations to evaluate their governments. According to him transparency in public governance and empowerment of citizens can go a long way in reducing the scope for corruption.

Likewise, the Legatum study calls out  that ‘changes in the “social fabric” of a country can lead to big changes in national prosperity.

What does all this mean for organizations and internal communicators?

Think about this – how different are the expectations of employees from their leaders and organization when it comes to governance, safety, personal freedom, social capital and health – the factors studied by Legatum?

In an organizational context it might read as ‘direction’, ‘trust in leadership’, ‘empowerment’,  ‘workplace safety’ and ‘employee health’ – measures to gauge how the firm is doing with engagement.

However to make your workforce engaged you need your leaders to focus on how Anna is driving his campaign to make Indians happy, healthy and free.

Wouldn’t you like Anna to be on your team?

Fire-Drilling Your Internal Communications

In India fire-drills conducted by organizations are considered a necessary but a drab affair. With thousands of staff working in high rise buildings fire safety is a priority and standards needs to be explained effectively.

Most organizations have a health and safety officer who interfaces with a third party vendor to organize demos periodically and share preventive measures and safety to-dos.

The onus of getting drilling the message is however left to the building management and office leadership.

Stay on course

I attended a memorable fire drill recently and it got me thinking of opportunities for internal communicators in driving home messages with audiences.

The drill instructor stood on the podium cajoling staff to assemble quickly as they walked in. Five minutes before the fire alarm sounded and the emergency rescue team members escorted people out and directed them to the basement through staircases. To ensure people headcount matched staff needed to stand in the space allotted to their respective floors. His presence –  the bright blue cap, the smart blazer, the sunshades and the megaphone ensured people knew who ran the show. He had planned the event meticulously – the ambulance van beside the podium, the safe area to demonstrate the fire extinguishing act, his troop of volunteers to support his mission. As a regular on the crisis management and fire drill circuit he anticipated a mellow response. He briefed the audience on his track record with the city’s fire brigade before he began the drill.

Presence and credibility are crucial to gain respect. Know your onions to get a seat at the table.

He took the opportunity to set context while people settled down. Aware that fire drills are considered a spoilsport to work he drew examples from recent fire accidents to anchor the event. Carlton Towers in Bangalore recently witnessed a devastating fire and many people lost their lives. The investigations revealed poor safety standards and lacuna in emergency planning. He didn’t mince words as he made sure he overcame the cynicism around. He castigated some who casually strolled to the demonstration spot indicating the importance of time in a crisis situation.

Anchor your messages to events and scenarios your audience can relate to.

 By sharing the time taken to evacuate people, which fell short of the target, he also called out that safety is everyone’s’ ownership and a few seconds can decide the fate of many. Therefore while people may have taken care of their safety first they also needed to look out for others, especially pregnant ladies and differently abled individuals.

Make your stakeholders a part of the process and responsible for their communication.

Although watching demonstrations can give you a fair idea of what is expected from you, your ability to perform when you are expected to is strengthened when you put the theory into practice. Therefore, he invited people from the audience to participate for techniques such as lifting injured people, creating a make-shift stretcher with a rope and rescuing people in emergencies. He rewarded those who volunteered in the exercises and kept the audiences engaged with references from Bollywood and cricket, two very popular themes that India can relate to.

Show and tell, guide and coach so that your audience ‘gets’ it.

He also drew our attention to fire signs on floors. We usually tend to take them for granted but in a fire those are indicators which can guide up through thick smoke and take us to safety.

Sign post progress so that stakeholders know where you are heading.

Last but not least he personally thanked the office head and personally called out the names of the emergency response  team members (trained volunteers from the office) to recognize their work.

Recognize the effort stakeholders take to improve communication. It may not be their day-job however much you wish it were!

The Curious Case of Employee Voice

The recent announcement by Infosys to set up an internal portal (similar to Facebook) to give  employees a ‘voice’ intrigued me.

According to the news report, the intranet called the ‘Infy Bubble’ is supposedly a platform for disgruntled Infoscions to vent on. 

Is the assumption that employees don’t have a voice? I would disagree. The fact that organizations are made up of people coming together for a common purpose denotes that all ideally have a say in the company’s agenda. That said, employees may feel that their voice isn’t valued if they aren’t heard or their suggestions are considered.

Strangely, as Wikpedia puts it, the Employee Voice page is an orphan since it has very limited links and people taking active interest to update the topic.  The definition on the page talks of the spheres of influence – refers to the participation of employees in influencing corporate decision making – “employees are given a voice through informal and formal means to minimize conflict, improve communication and encourage staff retention through motivation and fair treatment”.

While there have been examples of organizations in India that involve employees for decisions on corporate initiatives or seek feedback on policies asking employees to vent internally takes engagement to a completely new dimension.

With the explosion of social media India based firms have struggled with managing employees who voice their thoughts on external sites. From a personal concern to a company program that didn’t go down well everything has the potential of showing up in the public domain.

Probably the questions that need addressing are:

  1. Why does an organization need a portal to help employees voice their opinion?
  2. Will employees voice their opinion just because organizations build systems?
  3. What is the role of the immediate supervisor if an employee didn’t trust him or her and went elsewhere to vent frustrations?
  4. How can organizations coach supervisors to be more approachable for employees to ‘voice’  opinions?
  5. How can organizations surface concerns before they explode on to social networks and become a PR debacle?
  6. Can internal communicators play a role in improving transparency and engagement in the organization considering the evolving social media landscape?

Here are some recommendations which according to me will enable improved dialogue between management and employees.

Encourage accountability for periodic conversations

According to the 2011 BT-Indicus-PeopleStrong Survey of Best Companies to Work For  only 36% of those surveyed were extremely satisfied with their supervisor’s communication, an alarming indicator.

This obviously relates to why they end up going elsewhere to surface their concerns. It should be an essential and a non-negotiable expectation of supervisors to connect regularly.

Gauge the mood before employees vent-out

It isn’t enough to run an organization health audit annually to know how employees feel. Have pulse checks more often to know the mood. Some organizations in India have taken the issue to employees directly and come up with innovative ways to pre-empt ‘venting’. One of them introduced a ‘mood meter’ on everyone’s table to gauge how employees felt about the organization and their work. The supervisor is expected to notice any changes in the color codes (red indicating dissatisfaction as opposed to green which means ‘happy’) and take preventive measures. Only the employee is allowed to turn back the color again on the meter once the issue is resolved.

Penalize supervisors who don’t make listening a priority

Take the supervisors to task if their team members surface frustrations on the wrong forums instead of first discussing concerns with them. Unless there is skin in the game employees will always feel let down.

Recognize people for surfacing concerns

To prevent employees from not sharing issues on their minds externally ensure you have a culture of openness and transparency. It helps to demonstrate commitment to the cause by recognizing employees for bringing their issues to the table. Storytelling their episodes also help percolate the messages further.

Remember that with a great deal of cynicism by the younger generation in India for numerous governance lapses in the public sphere every organization, a best employer or not, is under watch.