See yourself through their eyes

You’re acutely aware of the internal structure of your company, and the politics and complex challenges that spring from that structure. When a customer needs something, you mentally consider which departments will be involved and what it will take to make it happen. Your customers? They see you as a single entity.

For many years, I produced a regular newsletter for a public library. The biggest challenge I faced wasn’t gathering enough material or meeting deadlines, but navigating the intense internal politics. The circulation director thought the youth services department received too much attention, and youth services thought there were too many articles about reference services, and reference services thought too much attention was devoted to events, and — you get the idea. Each department wanted me to make sure articles related to their department mentioned it by name, so there was a clean delineation.

The library’s patrons never saw evidence of the internal rivalries and divisions, but the staff lived on a daily diet of both. In their eyes, the lines between departments were as clear and critically important as the border between the U.S. and Canada.

The funny thing was that users didn’t care about those lines. When they thought about the library, they didn’t think about the circulation department, or the youth services department, or the reference services department. They thought about the library as a single entity. Sure, the library’s building was divided into departments, but nobody ever said, “I’m going to Reference Services today.” They said, “I’m going to the library.” It took some effort, but using that emphasis in communications helped to make the politics less volatile.

What does this have to do with business? Plenty. I’ve seen similar situations happen in everything from corporations to local government bureaucracies. Every organization has its own internal politics — some are relatively innocuous, others ridiculously passionate. Employees and managers become so accustomed to dealing with the realities of internal boundaries and battles between departments that it begins to spill into what they say to people outside the organization.

When your customers start discussing your company’s politics or mention aspects of them when talking about a new project, that’s a danger sign. Usually, it says that the battles are becoming too intense, or employees are disclosing much more than they should. Whatever the cause, it has to stop before it carves away at (or even destroys) your hard-earned image.

You see, your customers and other external stakeholders don’t give a fig about your internal divisions and dissensions. They just want to do business with your organization. They don’t want (or need) to know that Ernie in Engineering has been feuding with Annie in Accounts Payable over that request from Linda in Logistics and that’s why Perry in Production is royally screwing up the deadlines. Your customers don’t want to become participants in your internal wars. They don’t need to know that behind your pretty reception area there lurks a dysfunctional nightmare.

That’s why it’s so important to project a unified image at all levels of the company. That’s why all stakeholder contacts should be consistent and positive. Is that being completely honest? Maybe not from an internal standpoint, but the outside world has no reason to become aware of or involved in your dirty laundry.

The key is to stop looking at your organization through your eyes, and start concentrating on how your customers and other stakeholders see it. When you communicate, ignore the internal boundaries and divisions and see your company as your customers, prospects, users, or whoever you’re trying to attract wants to see it. If you can describe yourself the way they would, you’ll discover that you’ll do a much better job of creating connections.

You’ll probably also start to find that your communications efforts will set the tone for how you do business. As employees and managers begin to buy into the message, the divisions and struggles may be less visible and seem far less important. It may not fix the problems, but at least you may be able to lower the temperature.