Before the US elections of 2016, I spent a month travelling to meet people in various parts of that country. As an outsider, my reading of the Trump phenomenon was very different from what I was hearing from those around me. I had a strong gut feeling that he was becoming a mouthpiece for sentiments that many Americans related to but never expressed openly. Until now, political correctness along with all the other constraints of a society that wants to be viewed as progressive and democratic had kept many of these sentiments at bay. But Trump was tapping into something very fundamental – a deep-seated sense of fear and anxiety among people. It was a palpable phenomenon. One could feel its currents in the air. But everyone I spoke to denied that it was a real one. They felt it was impossible that somebody with his temperament could become the leader of the ‘free world’.
Regardless of how we feel about the outcome of that election, it does reaffirm the value of gut instincts. This is neither a new nor a revolutionary concept. History is littered with examples of effective leaders who were adept at reading the pulse of their audiences. Clearly, technology is not the most critical factor in this exercise. That is not to suggest that the miraculous digital tools at our disposal are not really helping. But we cannot dismiss the value of personal relationships and human contact in the midst of all this. Now more than ever, there is a need to understand and acknowledge behaviors and motivations – in situations that are not entirely familiar to us. We have to accept that our reality may be very different from someone else’s.
Leaders who fail to recognize that fact may find themselves on a slippery slope. Take the general restrained reaction to the challenges of demonetization in the country. Those who do not feel its pain on a daily basis are presuming that everybody across the country feels the same way. But maybe the reaction from rural India is muted because its residents lack platforms to express their fears and concerns. What happens when and if those floodgates open?
Similarly, businesses that build their products and services based on a limited worldview will see this strategy backfiring on them sooner or later. We cannot develop a cohesive strategy around the behavior of a small segment of the population that thinks and acts as we do. It is important to examine various strata and sub-groups within the target market in order to uncover their pain points, motivations, habits and more. This exercise will open our minds to a reality that is different from what we experience and live on a daily basis. If the events of 2016 have taught us anything, it is the importance of listening for more than just the reinforcing signals of our private bubbles.
Listening – truly listening – to your customer requires time, effort and money. But there is no substitute for it in today’s reality. Yet, many companies keep forging ahead – with blinders on – and are then surprised to find the ground shifting from underneath them.
The other key challenge for leaders and businesses lies in building authentic narratives in the midst of so much noise. We are surrounded by un-validated views and news that are being amplified – through various echo chambers – to an audience that is not really thinking for itself. In an age of increasing cynicism, the very platforms designed for authentic communication have lost their sheen and credibility. The word ‘authentic’ itself has become loaded to the extent where it is hard to know what it means any more.
A leader who chooses to be a loose cannon on twitter, for example, may be viewed as authentic by some and rashly impulsive by others. It is possible that such public airing of opinion – without active control and curation – is the new normal in the world today. There is a lot more pressure for leaders to navigate and figure out where the boundaries lie in all of this. What is clear is that there is very low tolerance now for communication that is superficial or sanitized. We need to find ways to bring the heart into it. If it strikes an emotional chord in people, then it is more likely to be viewed as both authentic and effective. I found a good example of this recently in a heartfelt letter by the CEO of a multinational pharma company in which he expressed his anguish with predatory pricing and other questionable practices in the industry and described how his organization aimed to counter these.
We live in times when a single event can disrupt the status quo in an instant. A recent example of this can be found in the way the fortunes of one mainstream newspaper – the Hindustan Times – nosedived overnight. Its business model, already weakened by the digital revolution, crumbled under the weight of demonetization. Being alert to such threats is increasingly important for an organization.
There are also some fundamental aspects of our lives that appear to be under siege. One involves freedom of the press and, at a broader level, freedom of speech. Safeguarding these freedoms was always critical and is even more so now. The second aspect – the right to privacy – is something we have to debate in a clear-eyed manner. While Facebook and Google are among the biggest purveyors of data, government mandates to get broad access to it can change the landscape dramatically. Should we surrender all data to the government of the day who is neither building nor intending to build checks and balances to protect it? It is important to be conscious of these developments in our environment and to scrutinize them for both intent and impact.
In the final analysis, reputation management in today’s reality involves getting back to basics. We also have to realize that we cannot base all our decisions on pure data. Human connections are as important today as they were before the digital revolution. Forging and cultivating these will still be key in an era of technological and business disruption.