“We can’t take a side.”

“We can’t comment on everything.”

“The war is in the Middle East. This doesn’t impact us.”

Leadership has never been a sideline sport. 

Yet it’s exactly those sentiments from CEOs and other senior leaders that led to silence and being completely tone-deaf inside organizations after the October 7 terrorist attacks. It’s especially striking after many CEOs have spoken out on so many other DEI&B-related issues before. 

None of us can comprehend as humans why denouncing hate and discrimination in any form was so difficult after the horrific events in the Middle East. And why there was such a lack of concern and support for employees impacted by this conflict. CEOs have a responsibility to denounce hate and ensure they create a safe workplace for everyone.

They are complicit in their silence.

Have CEOs not read their own prescribed values or are they just words on colorful posters? Are their organizations not on some kind of a DEI&B journey to create better, more productive and inclusive work environments, or is that just lip-service to quell activists? Are they not able to empathize with those who are affected – Jews, Arabs, Muslims, and the employees who watched the horrors on social media and on television. Surely they should be able to show they care about their employees – in this case by denouncing hate – without having to go on “Undercover Boss” to get close to their frontline teams.

Plus, it’s not like organizations haven’t been used to commenting on issues that arise, and now many have playbooks and dedicated teams to help decide if, when, and how to comment.

Finally, if there’s no moral imperative to communicate, it’s clearly in the best self-interest of organizations. After all, when employees’ well-being is affected, we know that there’s a great possibility that work will be stopped, slowed, or interrupted. Discretionary effort disappears. Today more than ever, focus is critical to business success: accelerating results, delivering innovation, and driving strategy. 

Yet our research conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll reveals the appalling job by most organizations in not communicating about this issue. 

What we Learned

Among the key findings from the survey of 2,154 U.S. employees, which was conducted over two waves in late October and early November 2023: 

  • Silence on the conflict. Only a small number of employees received any communication regarding the Middle East conflict. Just 1-in-5 employees said their employer shared an official internal statement, and only about 1-in-6 employees reported that their manager communicated with them.
  • Large numbers impacted. Our research revealed that 51% of employees were affected in some way by the events in the Middle East – almost 10 times what you would expect based on the percent of the population Jews, Arabs, and Muslims represent. Moreover, over half of that group had no friends, colleagues, or other direct ties to the region. Hate is not political and impacts far more people than leaders may expect. 
  • The more communication, the better. Confidence in leadership, alignment with company culture, and engagement – all critical business drivers – increased four to six times when employers communicated about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and managers reached out to employees. This speaks to the benefits to the business when the issue was handled effectively.
  • Managers generally did well when they communicated directly. When employees reported meeting with their manager, 43 percent felt strongly that the conversation made them feel more engaged, and 42 percent felt strongly that their manager was empathetic. 

Communicators Rate the Key Components of Successful Communication

The research also included a quantitative survey of 118 communication leaders to determine key components of best practice communications and a content analysis of 68 internal company statements.

Communicators identified 12 essential components of effective communication and rated concern, empathy, and authenticity as the most important.

However, when the actual internal statements were assessed for those top components, about 1/3 of the statements didn’t include concern and authenticity, two of the top elements.

That’s why organizations and leaders need to look at everything they say and do through a human lens – and craft communication with what matters most to employees using ACE (authenticity, concern, and empathy) as the foundation.

Key Takeaways and Next Steps for Communication Leaders 

This research underscores an unfortunate reality in many organizations today: some companies think the best decision is to say nothing when issues arise. That decision has a significant potential adverse business impact and is a missed opportunity.

Across organizations of all sizes, the impact of either saying nothing or poor communication includes the potential for under-productivity, distraction, and business slowdown.

Among the best practices for communicators to adopt when major geopolitical or other issues emerge:

  • It’s not about taking a political stance or side. The only “side” to take is that of your employees – especially given the potential impact on their well-being. Employees who said their company did not make a statement reported 10 percent confidence in company leadership.
  • Don’t assume employee silence means employees are okay. Know what your employees think about and the issues, topics, and concerns that impact them. A greater percentage of employees’ well-being may be affected significantly by issues than senior leaders might expect.
  • Craft your communications with what matters most to employees. We know the 12 essential elements of effective internal communications led by ACE: authenticity, concern, and empathy. Be intentional about how you address and reflect these (along with values) and communicate with the employee audience in mind and their point-of-view.
  • Remember, it’s not one-and-done. Bundle a global message with manager outreach. Communicating an internal statement isn’t enough to impact well-being. The impact comes when there’s effective internal communication coupled with manager outreach.
  • Managers hold the key, and we must support and hold them accountable. The lack of manager conversations reflects the need for greater accountability, development, and tools to help them. Managers don’t need to solve an issue or have all the answers. Instead, we need to help prepare them to empathize and demonstrate support.

A Need for Reflection on the Part of CEOs and Senior Leaders

When my kids were younger, I would often offer them a re-do when they made what Steve and I might consider a large mistake. Sometimes that was spurred on by bouts of crying and apologizing; every time, it was the perfect coaching and learning opportunity.

There’s a need for significant reflection here on what we learned. Given the research results, and our own experience here, we know better now, so I hope we will do better.

Issues are not going away. Backlash and controversy will still be a reality today. Employee well-being will continue to be a hugely important challenge and opportunity inside organizations. As Adam Grant recently said, we’re in a permacrisis, or feeling of tremendous permanent uncertainty.

There’s a re-do opportunity coming up. We don’t know when it will be, but we know there’s another issue that’s going to challenge CEOs.

When that issue arises, I hope CEOs and senior leaders will lead with their hearts IN their heads and do the right thing. And help employees understand the reasons behind the decision – because silence isn’t the answer.

In the meantime, if their values are words on a page, better activate those current values or co-create new values that reflect who your organization really is. They help guide actions in defining moments.

If their DEI&B efforts are “lip service,” fix that and prove it with actions.

If their own biases got in the way, it’s time for coaching and more self-reflection.

Finally, if they’re not getting proper counsel on what to do when issues arise, get new counsel.

It’s often the moments that challenge us most where we learn the most.

This is one of those moments.

You can find more details on the study by The Harris Poll for The Grossman Group here (log-in Required).