A year for leadership: Six communication trends to watch in 2021

2020 tested people, organizations, and communities like no year in recent history. It revealed deep divides in our world. It also gave us hope, because many leaders and professionals saw it as a time to step up — both to deliver value and demonstrate values.

What can leaders learn about communication from the year gone by — and what trends should we watch in 2021? Here are the “big six” on my radar screen — and those of Argyle clients.

1. Viruses, vaccinations & behavioural change: Social marketing takes centre stage

The trend: Long before there was social media, there was social marketing: the art and science of applying commercial marketing principles to changing human behaviour. The continuing pandemic, coupled with the overwhelming public need for mass COVID-19 vaccinations, will make social marketing the most powerful form of communication in 2021.

What it means: Businesses must join government and non-profit leaders to influence behaviour — not only to improve employee compliance, but to contribute to the greater social good. We will witness both stellar successes and cautionary tales, shining a light on the value of social marketing done well, and the risk of social harm when it is done poorly. Either way, the field could advance like never before.

2. Employee engagement: The internal becomes external

The trend: Even as mass vaccination takes hold and workplaces re-open, organizations will remain cautious about coronavirus transmission. The emergence of more “hybrid” work environments – with some employees in the office and others working remotely — will force smart organizations to update ground rules and playbooks for internal communications and employee engagement, to ensure knowledge-sharing, healthy cultures, equity, and two-way accountability.

What it means: Leaders should resist premature declarations about the future of their workplaces until they have better data on the long-term impact of remote and hybrid work environments on employee experience and performance. We already know the answers will vary greatly for different types of work — and different types of employees. Leaders must set clear expectations, while making flexibility and individualized consideration their watchwords.

3. Demographic dissonance: Gen Z asserts itself

The trend: For almost two decades, fields as disparate as brand and product marketing, politics and philanthropy have focused on engaging the millennial generation. While there is no exact science to defining a generation, we will see rising attention to the global cohort now emerging from high schools, colleges and universities at this time of unprecedented uncertainty and social upheaval.

What it means: Whether it’s leading calls for climate action and racial justice, advancing more fluid attitudes to gender identity, or spearheading change in the workplace, marketplace or ballot box, this generation will assert itself in a big way. Communicators and leaders must devote time, attention, and resources to understanding and engaging a highly heterogenous generation that will confound generalizations, mass targeting or easy analysis.

4. ESG, corporate purpose and reputation risk: From the margins to the mainstream

The trend: As the world slid into a pandemic-induced recession, there were predictions that the momentum behind business interest in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues would falter as investors and business leaders re-focused on the bottom line. The opposite has happened. In 2020, the “S” in ESG asserted itself strongly, with new attention to social needs, health, and safety, and addressing inequity and injustice – all as ways to protect and improve the bottom line.

Have some companies put profit before purpose? Of course. Is there still plenty of “purpose-washing” out there? No question. But our work with financial institutions persuades us that the ESG movement is being driven as much today by the providers of financial capital as the proponents of a better world. As a result, to borrow the title of a memorable event I joined in December, more and more corporate leaders are daring to leap, better managing their risks, and finding new business opportunities.

What it means: With so much market value resting in intangible assets such as reputation, the management of ESG risk — and the seizing of competitive advantage — must move from the margins to the mainstream of leaders’ thinking. In 2021, we expect continued momentum towards a harmonization of ESG reporting frameworks and standards, reflecting a maxim I have long believed: when you change the way leaders report, you change the ways leaders think.

5. The post-pandemic fault line: Somewheres vs. anywheres

The trend: After the U.K.’s Brexit vote, British author David Goodhart coined the terms “Somewheres” and “Anywheres” to explain the divisions that brought on Brexit and the rise in populist politics. In brief, the argument is that society is dividing into urban, socially liberal global citizens who can live or work anywhere, and a larger group of less advantaged and less mobile citizens bound through need, circumstance or preference to a specific place or community. (He also described an “in between” group).

While this is not a new idea, the pandemic has surfaced and deepened these divisions in every society, as knowledge workers’ personal health, safety and incomes have been far less at risk than those of people providing public services or serving retail customers.

What it means: This environment creates new risks for leaders. First, it means scrutiny for anyone in the spotlight: CEOs and boards receiving enriched pay or perqs; vacationing politicians violating their own “stay home” directives; or clueless social media celebrities proving to be embarrassingly out of touch with their communities. Second, it creates the very real risk of non-compliance with critical policies and behaviours. It is essential that leadership, corporate and brand communication be reviewed by objective, neutral and external eyes, and viewed through the lenses of both empathy and inclusion.

There is also a caution here for those seeking to advance important movements for causes from climate action to racial justice. A message of individual loss (“it’s time for some people to give up their privilege”) will rarely inspire support — particularly when the audience includes so many who feel powerless and even resentful. A message of collective gain (“by being more inclusive, our organization will be more successful and more resilient; let’s talk about how to do it”), delivered in a collaborative, dialogic spirit, can inspire openness and improve the likelihood of change.

6. Transformational leadership for turbulent times

The trend: The pandemic has taught us a great deal about leadership, according to Julian Barling, a professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business. At a workshop I attended last month, he recalled Bernard Bass’s four principles of transformational leadership, and connected them to the COVID-19 experience:

Idealized influence: Leaders earned influence for doing virtuous things that they were not required to do – but chose to do anyway.. An example: foregoing their own pay to forestall layoffs. This is also true of leaders who have proactively admitted and apologized for mistakes, prioritizing the interests of others over their own egos.

Inspirational motivation: Motivation in 2021 is about calming things down more than firing people up. It is about giving them a collective purpose and enabling them to see things with a broader or different perspective.

Intellectual stimulation: During the pandemic, with confusion and misinformation all around us, transformational leaders have brought clarity and simplicity to their communication, helping people to better understand challenges, and to make the right decisions for themselves.

Individualized consideration: As our work, home and family lives become more intertwined. our daily highs and lows are all too visible — even on Zoom. This is a time for leaders who think of others — and their individual needs — even during the leader’s most difficult times.

What it means: Dr. Barling points out that at the most difficult times, people expect competence from leaders, but do not particularly remember or reward it. They remember the leader who chose to do the right thing; who was the voice of calm; who helped them think for themselves and control what they could; and who took the time to understand what they needed – a helping hand, an empowering vote of confidence, a fresh perspective or a simple thank-you.

Times of crisis are the times when leadership and communication matter most – and 2021 will bring new risks, reckonings, lessons, and opportunities. The leaders who are mindful of this environment will be best equipped to communicate with confidence.

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