Why Awards Matter – Communication, Leadership and Rhetoric

Note from Helen: It’s such an honour to share a guest post on this blog from a communicator I have admired for years, Laura Davies.

As a judge and a winner of awards, I’ve experienced how outside recognition helped individuals and teams improve their work by boosting their confidence to make bolder decisions in the future and work feel more supported in the work they do.

A great case is made here by Laura on how awards can benefit an organisation – over to her… 

@LauraDavies24“As some of you who follow me on Twitter @lauradavies24 may be aware, for me last month was all about awards.

First I was really pleased to receive a special award recognising my six years’ service as a charity trustee. Second, I was delighted when I learnt that the charity had achieved Investors In People (IIP) Gold. Third, I was even more delighted to learn that the charity was shortlisted in the category of Best Gold employer (small organisations) for the IIP Awards in June. Not so shabby for a team of 19 staff and full-time elected officers based in two main offices in Carlisle and Lancaster (with all the communication and logistical challenges that brings), serving some 10,000 students across several campuses in Cumbria, North Lancashire and London.

The inevitable question of who should go the IIP Awards ceremony at The Tower of London was on the agenda for our trustee board this week. The issue of how much it would cost, is there provision in the budget and could we get external support are very much part and parcel of any trustee board’s remit. But we also took a step back and spent some time considering whether we should be sending anyone to the ceremony, which is an evening event. After all, we are a charity.

Those of us who have put on awards ceremonies in our professional lives know much they cost and those of us who have attended awards ceremonies in our professional lives know the price is not just the ticket face value, but the time away from the office, travel, accommodation and so on. Carlisle to London and back takes a long time, even by Pendolino.

So what, you ask? Well, I’d like to tell you my take on this. And that’s what this blog post is about.

I Heart Rhetoric

Helen Reynolds and I share a guilty pleasure. We love rhetoric. Our shared love became apparent one evening a few weeks ago when we tweeted each other during a feature by the classicist Professor Mary Beard on Newsnight, in which Professor Beard, with her typical eloquence, put the case for rhetoric. Prompted by Mary and Helen, the next day I re-read some of my books about rhetoric, including the excellent “Are You Talking to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama” by Sam Leith and the equally excellent “Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student” by Edward J.P. Corbett.

In case you’re wondering why I have these books in the first place, it’s because my MA dissertation topic in 2013 was entitled “’Whose Voice Is It, Anyway?’ Rhetoric, Leadership and Change.” I undertook a case study of a company which had undergone a change in its top leadership the year before and I wanted to understand if a change at the top of the organisation resulted in a change in corporate communication.

“She blinded me with science”

Over the past week, I have been looking for inspiration about leadership communication. So I looked at my bookshelf. And there was my inspiration. Sometimes the answer is just in front of you. I revisited my Masters dissertation! Specifically, I went back to a paper by the American academic George Cheney (1983) which was based on research he undertook for his own doctorate. Dr Cheney proposed five ways in which people and organisations identify themselves and identify with each other through communication:

  1. Espousal of shared values
  2. Praise by outsiders
  3. Advocacy of benefits and activities
  4. Identification by antithesis (the slightly ponderous-sounding “against a common foe”)
  5. The assumed “we”.

Each of these five aspects probably warrants a blog all of its own, but I’d would like today to spend a couple of minutes talking about the second point, praise by outsiders.

For my case study, I looked for examples of references in both interviews and corporate communication to external stakeholder acknowledgement and external awards. My interviewees talked about their company’s “pride in receiving awards” for their work in environmental performance and corporate social responsibility. Furthermore, they also talked about changes in their meetings with local authorities and partner bodies which had previously been “horrendous” and “embarrassing” and now were “different… hugely positive… even enjoyable”. Wow. Imagine that. What made the difference? Was it the change in leadership? Or had something else changed?

“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, and that’s what gets results”

I like simple, memorable definitions. It’s why one of my favourite definitions of “organisational culture” attributed to Deal and Kennedy, that “it is the way we do things round here”. This definition can, however, be both positive and negative in my opinion. When there isn’t buy-in, there can be resentment, cynicism, misunderstanding, factions and in extreme cases, a FIFO (fit in or eff off) mentality. When there is buy-in, there is common purpose, mutual understanding, support, collaboration and strength. And people feel better about themselves and their work. And that’s when you get change for the better.

Can you hear that noise? That’s the penny dropping just now about what I had also observed in my case study. Through the pro-active nurturing and development of shared values and behaviours endorsed by the organisation’s leadership, the company had begun to take those early tentative steps towards a more open and transparent culture. The managers noticed. And so did their staff. And so did their customers. And so did their stakeholders. And so did their board. And then they started getting recognition from their peers. Or as George Cheney put it, they were praised by outsiders.

“Can I Kick It?” Yes We Can.

In 2013, I wrote the following: “The importance of communication in understanding individual identity and identification is summarised in the statements “this is who I am” and “this is the group I belong to” (Hartelius and Browning 2008).

On Tuesday, the CEO of UCSU, the Executive Assistant and I met our IIP assessor Anne Owens to receive feedback regarding our Gold award. I told them about three separate pieces of feedback I’d received regarding our achievement, from people whose views I value and respect. I remarked that our achievement of IIP Gold was the culmination of 6 years’ hard work by the staff, the elected officers and the trustees of UCSU. And we aren’t deluding ourselves. It has been very hard at times and continues to be hard. But we did it. WE DID IT!

That’s why I’m proud to say I’m Laura and I am a trustee of the award-winning University of Cumbria Students’ Union.

And if I could go back and rewrite my dissertation I would modify Hartelius and Browning. Because it feels amazing to say “This is who WE are and this is the group WE belong to.”

Now that’s what I call rhetoric.”

About me:

I am a trustee and vice chair of the award-winning University of Cumbria Students’ Union (UCSU). The views expressed are my personal views.

Recommended reads:

Sam Leith (2011) You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. Profile Books, London. (or as I know it, Rhetoric 101)

Aristotle (1991/2004) The Art of Rhetoric. Penguin, London (Aristotle is the daddy)

Edward P.J. Corbett (1990) Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 3rd Ed. Oxford University Press, New York, NY. (Written for students of rhetoric in American schools and colleges. Interesting, that students learn about famous speeches by leaders from their past, don’t you think?)

Cheney, G. (1983) ’The Rhetoric of Identification and The Study of Organizational Communication’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 69, pp.143-158.

And if you really want to more, just tweet me @lauradavies24. Thanks for reading my blog.

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