Have execs pass tests to be “Chief Explaining Officers”

by | Jul 21, 2014 | Blog | 1 comment

cave“The badness of this email has rewired my brain’s circuitry. All I understand now is business-school jargon and death. Sweet death.” – Kevin Roose in Microsoft Just Laid Off Thousands of Employees With a Hilariously Bad Memo for New York Magazine.

In his play-by-play commentary, Roose dissects each of the 14 paragraphs of Microsoft’s Stephen Elop’s 1108 word message. (The layoff information is buried in the 11th paragraph.)

By posting the message on its website, Microsoft was transparent, which is admirable.

On the other hand, the company opened itself up to criticism on so many levels.

For example, the memo gives new meaning to clueless corporate jargon that disrespects employees.

Furthermore, based on Microsoft’s own readability statistics (which users must turn on to use), the memo’s Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is at the 13th grade. That’s high considering the number of global Microsoft employees for whom English is a second language. (By contrast, 10th grade level is the highest I recommend to my clients. Newspapers and popular blog posts tend to be 8th grade.)

And last but not least, the memo shows that Elop, other Microsoft executives and their advisors at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide have really bad memories—unless they’ve been living in an impenetrable cave that CEOs inhabit, as one of my colleagues theorized.

In this cave existence, my colleague explained that CEOs come out when it’s time to communicate a layoff. Because they haven’t learned the lessons of all of the stupidity that has gone before them, they’re doomed to repeat the missteps.

How do we avoid these memory failures in the future?

All leaders, especially CEOs, should build better daily habits.

These include making a commitment to uni-task instead of multi-task so we’re all paying more attention to what we and others are doing.

We all should get at least seven hours of sleep each night.

We also should study the vast number of case studies on layoffs. From those case studies, many of which illustrate good and bad examples, we can glean the lessons about the right way to announce layoffs.

Once we know those lessons, we should teach others about the right way to announce layoffs. For example, CEOs can teach their peers at the CEO summer camps that Roose referred to in his satiric article. Or in a more serious vein, CEOs can explain what to do with their staffs.

Last but not least, we should take tests to make sure our new knowledge is sticking. In fact, research is showing that routine quizzes and tests that are integrated into lessons are one of the best ways to help people retain information. Check out the New York Times article How Tests Make Us Smarter.

All of these actions—paying attention, sleeping, teaching and testing—are proven ways to encode memories.

And as most of us know, when you remember, we improve our chances of avoiding repeating past mistakes, either our own or others.

Full disclosure: In my foundations in neuroscience class, we’ve been studying memory this past week. So by writing about it here, I’m helping my brain make new connections on the topic and make it more meaningful and memorable for me. And I’m hoping to be of service to you.

If we want our leaders to be clear, conscientious and empathetic “Chief Explaining Officers” we’ve got to improve our memories so we can stop the writing and issuing of “hilariously bad memos.”

It’s got to be painful for the Microsoft executive and the PR firm to be the butt of all of these jokes. And it’s offensive to be on the receiving end of these insulting messages.

While we can’t turn the pain of layoffs into a pleasurable experience, we can at least try to put people in a neutral state. That means treating people with dignity and respect.

So are you ready to build habits to help you and others improve our collective memories and avoid bad layoff messages?

1 Comment

  1. Beatriz Vera

    Wow! He doesn’t give a clue until the sixth paragraph, and doesn’t get to the point until the tenth, when he starts by: “In short”. I’ve always wondered if these CEOs ever lived a life of “normal employees” so they can put themselves in the position of the people receiving their messages. By the time they reach the C suite it seems they forget that people who will be laid-off couldn’t care less about the company strategy, or worldwide economy trends, or shareholders’ rights. Sometimes CEOs just forget to be human.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *