Everything in Moderation, Including Expectation-Setting

This article first appeared on The Holmes Report.

Last November, following the World Economic Forum (WEF) on India in Gurgaon, I shared some thoughts from the meeting on the challenges facing ‘Brand India’. I suggested, in the same way as we tell our corporate clients that successful external communication is heavily contingent on internal engagement and many of India’s seeming brand vulnerabilities may stem from an apparent lack of internal alignment.

And at the recent WEF on the Middle East & North Africa meeting on the Dead Sea in Jordan, I was struck just as strongly that many of the debates about the future of the ‘region’ (whatever that means for an area rich with complex linguistic, tribal and historical diversity) also center on an idea that lies at the heart of what we do as professional communicators. Only this time, that idea relates to expectation management and the alignment of words and deeds.

In January 2012, our CEO, Rob Flaherty, wrote a striking post from Davos for CNBC entitled “Shaping a New Communications Model – Silence is Golden”. In it he stated that “… a lot of big brands and companies should take a vow of silence – not forever, but at key moments in time” and argued that “in this era of radical transparency, rather than trying to explain what you’re doing to fix a problem or poor performance or disappointing service, put all of that energy into fixing it first. Let people see the difference, then call in the communicators to amplify the actions you’ve taken”.

It struck me that leaders of all kinds in this fascinating part of the world might find such thinking interesting, as they strive to meet the expectation of rapid, meaningful change, in a post-Arab Spring environment characterized by a social media explosion and more vocal expression. And it is here that an awareness of the potential to forge damaging gaps between the expectations generated by initial promises and the (in)ability to meet those expectations seems all-important.

This was brought home to me during one of the opening sessions in Jordan that I had the honor of moderating on “Rethinking the Role of the Private Sector”. Using live online audience polling for the first time at WEF, we asked the 300 or so audience members“How important will it be to establish a new leadership model and social contract following the Arab Spring to drive social progress?” In the responses,76.2% viewed it as ‘absolutely critical’, with 21.4% saying ‘very important’ and just 2.4% ‘somewhat important’.

And yet, when we asked “How likely do you feel a new leadership model and social contract is in your country following the Arab Spring?” one in two viewed it as ‘very unlikely’, 36.7% as ‘somewhat likely’ and just 13.3% ‘very likely’. These results were, of course, just a snapshot. However, the photographic negative represented by nearly 98% viewing a new model as enormously important, but then exhibiting almost equally extreme skepticism about the likelihood of that model emerging strikingly underlined the perils of creating expectations of a Nirvana-like new dawn which cannot then be met.

Make no mistake, the Arab Spring did not, in itself, automatically remove the enormously real challenges of poverty (both food and overall) and unemployment that underpinned the uprisings. Nor can change be expected overnight. However, as a general observation, it is worth mulling over whether the tendency of political leaders around the world to paint a slightly rosy picture of the future, for reasons of electoral expediency, may well result in the storing up of trouble for later.

Indeed, data from our annual Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor study hints at this possible dynamic: in 2013, 61% view political leaders globally as focusing on the short-term over the long-term, just 21% see them as leading effectively and only 19% view them as taking appropriate responsibility when things go wrong. And more generally, 59% of respondents want leaders who are open and honest about the challenge ahead. Such findings are particularly marked for political leaders, but naturally apply to leaders across the board.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of politicians per se – all leaders run the inherent risk of falling into this potential trap. However, it does highlight something we should all be acutely aware of as leaders or those who advise them: people will love you for providing well-founded hope. But they will punish you disproportionately for giving out false hope that cannot be realized. My father was a Quaker – a movement whose key tenets including ‘everything in moderation’. It may be that this is not bad advice in deciding on the best form of leadership communication when it comes to addressing the future.