Complexity in the conversation around doing good

As published in Atlanta Business Chronicle Leadership Trust on August 6, 2021.

Tumultuous events time-stamp our past two years, such as the pandemic, societal upheaval, presidential election, environmental extremes, post-pandemic reentry and the latest around massive talent shifts and resignations. Exposure to all these issues has made it hard for individuals and businesses alike to go back to the way things used to be. Our collective experiences have laid bare our interconnectedness and all stakeholders — customers, employees, family or friends — are looking to the businesses in their lives to help us move into a new reality.

Yet, how do companies navigate polarized opinions and find a positive place to engage? Amidst the complexity of the conversations, is there a low-risk way to do good?

Year over year, studies like the Edelman Trust Barometer show that employees consider generosity when deciding whether to work for or stay with a company. Consumers agree they prefer buying from generous companies and they will pay more for products from their favorite generous businesses. Businesses are at the forefront of people’s hopes for societal solutions and CEOs are increasingly expected to lead the way.

In March, my company surveyed over 600 Georgians and found that 91% of employed adult respondents expect business executives to express a point of view about sensitive issues. When asked in a subsequent poll in July of this year, 68% of respondents said it’s important to them that executives make public statements even when it’s about controversial issues. Of note, younger employees (those under 35) are twice as likely to think these public statements are very important.

So, what resonates more: a business’ actions or words? Should you enter the public discourse, simply do good things or both?

As a business leader, the calculus for making these decisions must take into account a variety of factors. But it’s important to realize not only the risks but the opportunity for guiding the narrative and helping all your stakeholders maintain a positive image of your company.

Studies will tell you people are paying attention and staying out of the conversation, while a tempting safe path, it may leave your company ill-positioned to attract, retain and build loyal constituents for the long haul. And the younger the employee base, the more likely lack of engagement will be viewed negatively.

Consider these incremental and ongoing steps that will position your company for an enduring positive role in the conversation:

  • Use purpose to galvanize stakeholders. Claim and communicate the company’s larger purpose beyond profit to energize stakeholders.
  • Increase leadership visibility and accessibility. Place a higher level of importance on leaders’ visibility and accessibility, communicating well and with transparency.
  • Continue to demonstrate empathy. People want to see leaders demonstrate empathy first internally at work and then externally to the broader community.
  • Thoughtfully address social issues with employees. Employees want to see their bosses addressing important social issues as a way to demonstrate employee care, empathy and practical visibility.
  • Maintain strong charitable giving. Continue to contribute resources and time to solve community needs, making sure to align charitable investments and volunteerism with company values.

Given that people express a desire to hear from the businesses in their lives, executives should prioritize and elevate the positive impact narrative around your company. People do notice. In silence, people make assumptions. The opportunity lies in jumping into the conversation by demonstrating, reinforcing and communicating the good stuff frequently.