How the Corona pandemic reveals your true Company Culture

How the Corona pandemic reveals your true Company Culture

Over the last 1,5 year our world has been heavily impacted in many ways by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many things that we took for granted and that are just part of the usual way we do things were all of a sudden not so obvious anymore. For Companies, this disruptive event has put enormous challenges on the table. The Covid-19 pandemic has for many been the Black Swan Event*, that nobody expected to occur, causing a huge mind shift and change in how the world works.

When you are driving on a road with a big bus and a Black Swan suddenly and unexpectedly crosses the road, it is very likely that you will not be able to avoid it. When you are driving that same road with a motor cycle or a bike, you’ll probably start to swivel, trying to stay in the saddle. Whilst many CEO’s and Managers have put great effort in adjusting their business approach and revisit their short and mid-term strategy, taking immediate actions to stay in the saddle while facing the new challenges, the impact of the existing Company Culture has more than ever shown it’s significance. How has your company culture helped or hindered you in these unprecedented times?

The way people act and interact when there are no rules that tell them what to do, that is what Culture is all about

Company culture can be defined as a set of shared values, beliefs, goals and practices that characterize an organization. Company culture refers to the attitudes and behaviours of a company and its employees. We see it in the way the people in the organization interact with each other, the values they hold, and the decisions they make.

If you’re asking yourself, what is my company culture like, take stock of what you’ve seen during this crisis: how have people reacted on the changes they were facing? Have they put their energy in collectively finding the best way to cope with it or did each department, team or even individual employee worked their own problems, for better or for worse? Have people been creative and open-minded or were they mostly grieving about what could not be done in the usual way anymore? Did your leaders find ways to keep their teams motivated and engaged when business results were deteriorating and/or even more workload and high pressure was overwhelming the team? Was there a climate of trust and commitment or did all the mandatory telework make leaders feel they were not in control anymore?

I have seen fantastic examples of company values coming to life even stronger than before:

  • Determined to help their customer, sales engineers were setting up demo equipment in their own garage and running virtual demo meetings with the customers from their home
  • Production operators together with Health & Safety instructors using all their creativity to find safe ways to keep production going and care for the health of the employees
  • IT teams taking ownership and walking the extra mile in equipping the organization and it’s people to work from home every day
  • Leaders empowering their team members and together finding the best way to solve problems, cooperate and stay connected as a team
  • Organizations reinventing their training approach and installing a new learning culture that is accessible to all employees

And sure, I have also seen other examples, where company values such as accountability or trust  remained idle words or instilled practices overtook from the desired cultural values.

In times of crisis the true culture in the company comes to the surface and has a huge impact on how your organization reacts to the situation. It’s worth considering the value of some lessons learned.

Use this experience to do a retrospect with your teams. What can you learn from this? Which company values that you have been writing about on your website and that you have been promoting at every employee event have showed their true face in the past months at all levels in the organization? What behaviors and attitudes have helped you most to face the Black Swan on the road? What practices should you get rid of for the future to stay performant in your business?

Black Swan Events are so rare that they seldom happen. Maybe it is time to revisit this definition. Look ahead and imagine new problems on your road, disruptors like the already occurring shortage in supply, increasing employee absenteeism and turnover, severe weather events or other natural disasters. This is a good time to evolve your business practices and company culture to be adaptive in the face of growing threats. And ask yourself: how comfortable am I being uncomfortable?

* Although the author of “The Black Swan”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, argues that epidemiologists have been warning of pandemics for many years and therefore the outbreak of Covid-19 is not a Black Swan, he recognizes that what is a Black Swan for some, might not be a Black Swan for others.

Why persuasion is so difficult

In a company, persuasion is a daily necessity. Changing operating methods, launching new ideas, successfully completing transformation projects, improving quality, ensuring safety at work, selling new products to customers, successful negotiation… This often requires investing a lot of energy for a result that does not always meet expectations. And there’s a reason for that: We do not use the ‘persuasion machine’ present in the form of the three brains that make up any human being.

The 3 brains that govern us
Did you know that the process of persuading a human being involves engaging the three brains that he possesses? Unfortunately, when we want to persuade, most of the time we deploy arguments that use just a small part of the first brain. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the impact of our communication is often unpredictable!

Our first brain is the one everyone knows. It contains 100 billion neurons. It is composed of two hemispheres. Simply put, the left side is essentially rational. It wants to understand everything, analyse everything and make a detailed assessment of the information provided to it, step by step. You should also realise that the left side does not want to take any risks. This is the origin of the resistance to change that one naturally observes in humans.

We all have a right brain hemisphere which is our spatial, creative, visual, relational side. It anticipates constantly. It is ready to take risks, without much calculation about them.

It works through mental images. Concepts, ideas, projects are all mental images, sometimes complex, that our brain has to decode.

A beneficial interaction
It was long thought that the two sides of the brain functioned with one being dominant over the other. At times either basically rational. Or then again, more emotional. But it has recently become clear that this is not the case at all. The two hemispheres are in constant interaction and continuously influence each other. When you communicate, you create a real ‘battle’ of the hemispheres in the hope that the outcome will be favourable to you.

Your communication will therefore be aimed at reassuring the left side of your target audience about the relevance of the arguments in order to control the analytical phase of reasoning. In doing so, your communication will also need to convey the ‘mental images’ that will lead to buy-in by the right side and then to action.

But never forget this: persuading an audience requires not only rational arguments, which is what 99% of managers do most of the time.

Rationality often fails to convince
Our second brain consists of our heart and our digestive system. It is composed of 540 million neurons. This second brain is the centre of our emotions. The most important decisions we make in our lives are initially processed by the two hemispheres of the first brain. But then, quite often it is based on ‘our gut feeling’ that we ultimately decide to go ahead or not, by ‘sensing’ that it’s the right decision.

In your communication you will therefore also have to integrate emotional arguments (the ‘what’s in it for me’) and action-orientated arguments to ‘move people’. By addressing the second brain and its emotional power of persuasion in this way, you double your persuasive impact.

A brain that remains little known
But there is also a third brain. This is made up of 300 billion glial cells that surround our first brain. These cells, whose name is related to the English word for ‘glue’, are specialised in various tasks: supporting neurons, supplying them with nutrients, accelerating neurotransmission, for example. We are only just now discovering the full potential of this veritable third brain.

One of the first applications we can draw from this is that the energy released by the glial cells decreases over time. A wise manager will therefore hold important meetings at the beginning of the week and at the beginning of the day rather than at the end of the week or at the end of the afternoon, because most brains will have difficulty concentrating, as the available energy has been partly exhausted.

If you want to have the energy and interaction to conduct a fruitful discussion, plan your meetings with the glial cells in mind!

Persuade by communicating
Persuasion through communication is within everyone’s reach. There’s no reason why you can’t make your persuasive power even stronger by from now on targeting the 3 brains of anyone you want to persuade. Want to find out how? Click here.

The contribution of professional communication in the management of restructurings

The beneficial effect of professional communication in any organizational restructuring, and especially when there are mass redundancies involved, is now widely recognized, backed up by facts and figures. The effect operates at a number of levels.

1. Being in control of the project right from the beginning and keeping control throughout the process

There is a saying: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Preparing for a corporate restructuring must avoid all amateurishness and ensure the inclusion of all the target groups on which the firm depends. Specific preparation must be made to back up the internal announcement, handle the press and other mass media, and manage external communication.

Crisis scenarios will have to be studied in advance and borne in mind when formulating a crisis plan. There must be provision to train people in handling the media and uncertainty. All of this will have to be included in specific arrangements for organization and planning. A professional approach to communication will give the firm a significantly greater chance of succeeding in its plan.

2. Ensuring the senior managers’ credibility and protecting the firm’s reputation when dealing with the media in difficult circumstances, while also retaining trust among customers, banks, strategic suppliers, governmental authorities, etc.

At times of corporate restructuring, the press and other media primarily focus on the attitude the firm adopts towards the staff, rather than looking at the basic problem. A journalist knows that a firm’s announcement of an “intention” actually means that it is determined, and that nothing will prevent it from carrying out the plan! On the other hand, all eyes will be on the firm’s attitude towards industrial-relations problems. Specific training in handling the media will make it possible to frame messages that correspond with the media’s values while meeting the firm’s aims. The same is true in relation to customers, banks, important suppliers and the authorities. A proactive and personalized approach will make all the difference in terms of trust in the firm and the firm’s reputation.

3. In case of a collective dismissal, avoiding trade unions or staff members resorting to legal proceedings for failure to comply with Belgium’s Loi Renault, with the risk of financial and other penalties being imposed

Every word is important when there is an intention to close or restructure a firm, as it may be used against the organization. A professional approach to communication will ensure that the messages communicated both internally and externally comply scrupulously with the law. This must apply not only to documents but also in orally communicated messages from managers. Those in charge of communication must, for this purpose, have a good knowledge of what is implied by the Loi Renault and also have wide experience enabling them to brief senior and other managers. Bringing a professional approach to bear in communication should avoid legal appeals being made, based on shortcomings or communication errors at any stage.

4. Avoiding the dissemination of incorrect information that can produce conflicts

A basic rule for success in communication is being proactive. Being the first to disseminate a message is definitely an advantage over the trade unions. It is not enough, however. The announcement of a corporate restructuring must be framed according to certain communication principles if it is to be persuasive throughout the firm. Expressing the “business case” for a restructuring in terms that are clear and comprehensible to everyone is a job in itself.

It has been shown that clear and proactive communication avoids giving trade unions an opportunity to sow doubt, and makes it possible to avoid “emotional” types of industrial action.

 5. Ensuring the plan’s credibility and that its effect is beneficial for the future, with no loss of the employees who hold the key to the firm’s successful relaunch

In any restructuring, two types of message have to be communicated: messages for those who may leave the firm and, even more importantly, messages for those who will remain and on whom the firm will depend for making the relaunch or plans for change a success.

This is a delicate exercise. Achieving the right balance depends on numerous factors. Control over these is important, so as to avoid losing key employees and prepare for a successful relaunch.

6. Avoiding or limiting industrial-relations conflicts, and managing crises, while keeping the firm as fully operational as possible

Avoiding and managing industrial-relations crises are a job in its own right within the communication field. Keeping the firm operational in particularly volatile or emotional circumstances is not something where you can ad lib. In either case, expertise in managing human behavior and change is essential, as is solid experience of managing industrial-relations crises. This experience has to be communicated to the managers (through general training and specific briefing) to assist in controlling difficult situations that can arise in everyday dealings with the staff.

 7. Managing the situation when negotiations have reached a stalemate

Often, a stalemate can be overcome by a thoroughly convincing communication initiative to the staff, sometimes backed up by the media. Examples have occurred where staff representatives have refused to participate in the works-council meeting where an announcement was to be made. Other cases have been where there was a ballot to accept an industrial-relations plan, etc. There is no shortage of instruments, but what really matters is to develop a winning strategy, based on extensive experience of the field.

 8. Training and supporting the supervisory staff in their communication activities aimed at changing opinions, accepting that the information and consultation phase is over, and ensuring the business continues

Middle management is a fundamental link in communication with the grass roots. People now stress that 80% of the messages communicated by a firm have to go through the supervisory staff, with only 20% being amenable to management from the center. This is especially true for middle managers, who often find themselves very much alone when dealing with a restructuring plan and staff reactions and questions. It has been noted that appropriate training in change-related communication and frequent back-up in the form of arguments or questions & answers are really helpful for these managers. The positive influence on grass roots’ opinions and on continuing business is widely recognized.

 9. Managing the post-restructuring relaunch in order to achieve the plan’s aims

During a restructuring, a lot of energy is expended and resources deployed in the communication of the project and the management of the different steps of the process. This often creates a specific dynamic in terms of communication channels that should be kept open and alive after the restructuring. This contributes a lot to remobilizing the employees around the company project in order to provide the impetus needed to remotivate the staff and achieve the firm’s plan.

Does the internal communications department still have a reason to exist?

Inadequate communication is still in the top 3 of frustrations and problems arising from employee surveys, engagement studies and communication audits. This is not surprising when we see that in many companies internal communication is still regarded as the task and responsibility of the communications department, if it exists, or of HR, and is managed centrally.

However, in a rapidly evolving world where flexible organisational structures and continuous change projects are becoming a constant, a centralised internal communication model is not sufficient to drive evolutions and build corporate culture.


The level of performance of an organisation depends on the management’s ability to establish sustainable cooperation with its employees through productive, effective and efficient relationships.  These relationships inevitably fall apart and need to be rebuilt over and over again.  It is therefore the core task of management to understand the interactions within its team and to manage them on a daily basis to ensure that each employee can get the best out of themselves.

Internal communication therefore becomes a skill that cannot be separated from leadership and management.

Communication skills are not innate.

Apart from a few innate talents, we find that managers are unable or poorly able to use their communication effectively.  Not because they don’t want to, but rather because they act from their gut feeling, which is rarely sustainable.  Although it sounds easy, communication is the biggest challenge for most managers.

Examples of gut feeling management:

  • Assume that employees like the strategy if few questions are asked during its slide presentation.
  • assume that everyone at least understands the message(s), if no questions are asked
  • 1-on-1 conversations with employees, outside the (semi-) annual performance appraisals, experienced as a waste of time due to a lack of expertise in conducting valuable bilateral conversations.
  • Selling a change project as an assignment from the management that cannot be escaped in the hope that the employees will accept and carry it out as a matter of course
  • Consider absenteeism and high staff turnover in their own department as a problem to be solved by HR.
  • think that slide shows can replace interpersonal communication
  • waver difficult questions asked by employees to senior management levels instead of taking responsibility for providing the answers themselves.

Dealing with interactions, the main task of each manager.

Internal communication stands and falls with the intensity at which interactions between people, people and structures such as new technology, people and ideas such as a new vision or culture, are steered.

Examples of dealing effectively with interactions:

  • Regular one-on-one meetings are scheduled with each employee in which 80% of the time is spent on how the employee perceives his/her work.
  • Discussions with employees are recorded and followed up in detail. In this way, a manager knows perfectly well what someone said months ago.
  • The manager knows his people well and speaks to them when he suspects that there is a problem.
  • The introduction of new technology is planned on a tailor-made basis for each employee with the possibility that some may need more coaching and training than others.
  • New projects are finalised with the team before they are implemented, taking into account the input of the team.
  • Management assignments are seen as an opportunity to prove what their own team can do.

This cannot be achieved at all with traditional internal communication methods, channels and tools.

“Take care of your people”.

Our experience shows that managers can fulfil their communication role perfectly if they are given tailor-made training in management and communication skills. After all, we are not only talking about communication techniques here, but especially about the way a manager understands and directs the interactions in his team.  Our motto is clear: take care of your people, they will take care of the machines, the products, the services and the customers.

Does internal communication still have a role to play?

In the future, internal communication will have to assist management even more in creating and managing interactions.  In doing so, 20% of the communication will be managed centrally, in order to create coherence in the organisation. The remaining 80% of internal communication will be integrated into line management, at the level of interactions, where the results will ultimately be achieved.

Successful Integration of two companies

The European integration of two companies is going smoothly thanks to a focus on preparation and management reinforcement.

A merger or acquisition often requires thoroughly integrating the departments, also across different countries. Following the integration in America, with this takeover, it was time for Europe to undergo the process. This meant moving the European headquarters to a different European country and restructuring six support services. The briefing showed that 12 countries would be affected, so it was crucial to have clear communication and strict compliance with the various legal obligations in the countries concerned.

As an expert in assisting with restructuring in the area of communication strategy and approach, Square Circle set to work to oversee this European integration process and draw up an action plan for communication, social relationships, and people, change and crisis management.

In this case study, we will briefly present our approach.

Step 1: Communication – From international to multi-local

The challenge is to get the management responsible for the project AND the local management on the same page. After all, integration may be the goal of the project team, but local management is the driving force for implementing the changes with the employees and is also key to preserving existing social relationships.

A number of well-organized messaging sessions with the integration team will provide a wealth of input, on the basis of which the communication platform can be developed. This is about more than just the pure business case and should give the stakeholders a clear picture of what will actually be involved in the integration.

Next, a number of work sessions with the various local managers allow the concept to be fully tested against the local reality on the ground. Involving the HR managers of the different countries is crucial for keeping the communication as clear as possible for the local employees and the social partners.

Step 2: Master roadmap – All on the same page

It has now become clear that a good roadmap is a crucial part of the preparation and follow-up once the integration has been announced. A detailed master roadmap is drawn up based on the information gathered during the work sessions and talks with project managers and legal specialists. This Square Circle tool incorporates 20 years of experience in some 400 restructurings and provides an overview of all aspects of the integration announcement: define responsibilities, determine communication tools according to the target groups, identify communicators, management training, major deadlines, legal obligations and, above all, what is expected from whom and when.

We then involve the local HR managers and guide them in preparing a local roadmap based on the master roadmap. This will include the legal steps in the different countries in order to enable synchronization in terms of timing (also during negotiations) and a joint approach.

By describing everything as concretely as possible together with the local managers, they are drawn into the project and can prepare themselves for what will be expected of them. They will ultimately become an important link in the success of the integration process. In the roadmap, nothing is left to chance.

Step 3: Management training sessions – How do I deal with uncertainty and change

During the various work sessions, we often notice that there is a need and demand for us to prepare the management for this change, as well. After all, many of them have never experienced anything like this. For example, we provide 20 training courses throughout Europe on how to deal with change in difficult times. These cover how to take on the role of communicator, persuasive communication and how to deal with the media. A Social Crisis Masterclass is organized in 3 potentially critical countries, with the aim of preparing for a number of difficult social scenarios.

Result: A more robust management following the integration

The thorough preliminary process with the integration team and local management put everyone in prime position for the kick-off. The announcement was flawlessly rolled out according to plan in the 12 countries. The social relationships were not harmed because management focused on transparency and trust. The information and consultations with the social partners went smoothly in all the countries where these procedures were required. As a result, the uncertainty among employees was also kept to a minimum.

The integration went according to plan with a management that came out of the process stronger than before.

The Perfect Meeting

Organizing a perfect meeting is like committing a perfect crime. It is all about preparation. Simply apply following rules and you will enjoy every minute of your meeting life forever! 

The perfect meeting

Meetings are an activity that mankind has invented as a way of directly translating Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into practical benefits for any manager, at any company. Time being relative, the primary benefit of meetings is to help managers survive long working days while occasionally attempting to resolve issues. But the latter is absolutely not a requirement. If you want to attain perfection in running your meetings, just observe the following 7 rules. 

1. When to hold a meeting?

Well, this is a dumb question. Look at your agenda for the next few weeks. If you find some empty spaces, just fill them in with meeting requests.

Use your creativity to invent topics that are irrelevant enough to be sure you don’t need to invest too much energy in preparing them. It’s a joy to do and a good exercise in creativity, no thinking outside of the box this time, but thinking outside of your agenda.

Your agenda is already fully booked? Lucky you, just remember that the majority of the scheduled meetings will create quality time in your busy weeks during which to work on your exploding mailbox and answer written messages from other managers on your mobile phone. You can already feel your stress disappearing at this positive prospect. 

2. Whom to invite?

The rule of thumb is: if you do not want to arrive at any decisions at the end of the meeting, invite as many people as you can fit around a table. You know that the majority of the attendees will not really participate, because they need to check their mails and messages. So, why bother worrying about whom to invite? A large number of attendees creates a win-win situation for all.

Note that if you really need to move forward on a project, you might consider talking to a few people face to face instead of scheduling another collective meeting. But this may be too efficient or disturbing because it works.

3. Organizing the meeting, where to start?

The first and most critical success factor is comfort. Go for large tables where everybody can easily install their laptop and mobile phone with enough space for their water bottles, some papers, a mouse for the elderly, the numerous cables needed to keep the laptops and phones alive and of course the many types of connectors for the beamer or TV set.

Don’t forget, we are 21st century managers. You cannot have too many power sockets. They are the lifelines for very busy people who never stop twiddling with their hardware in order to keep up with the many conversations that shape the daily life of a company. Plus, this way, you’ll also avoid people unplugging YOUR AC power.

For meetings at around 11 a.m. you should also provide enough table space for the occasional banana, apple, orange or light yoghurt including knife, spoon and the plastic bag for the peels. And at around 2 p.m. it is wise to provide space for the greasy sandwich that some participants will try to eat now, in your meeting, because they just came from a lunchtime meeting that lasted longer than planned.

Some companies these days are conducting ‘topless meetings’, where a huge tray collects all the laptops before the meeting. Be aware that many people cannot handle being away from electronics for more than 10 minutes. Compare that to a pet. So, in order to avoid pre-traumatic stress or late-stage depression, plan a lot of breaks. Such measures can only increase your reputation as an effective manager.

4. What is the most appropriate length for a meeting?

Well, contrary to what many managers think, the number of slides is not a good indicator of time. You know beforehand that you’re not going to have the time to go through all the slides anyway, whatever the length of the meeting.

Research shows that on average meetings – or 99% of all meetings – people do not really listen anymore after 5 to 10 minutes. So, as you can see, the length of your meeting doesn’t really matter. As long as everybody enjoys the time using their computer or mobile phone, you are safe.

By the way, keep in mind that in many companies, meetings never start on time and never finish on time either. So, do not panic if you see people arriving late and leaving early in your meeting. It is not that they are not interested or have a train or plane to catch, no, they just are trying to keep up with their agenda, this is business as usual.

5. And the slides?

Well, in our slide economy, common practice becomes a rule of law. Two principles have remained valid for the past three decades. The first principle is that the more slides you show, the more intelligent you will look. The second principle is that the more complex the slides are, the more you will be able to show that your audience is not intelligent. You get it? Number and complexity of slides are proportionally related to perceived IQ.

To achieve complexity in slides, please make sure to allow as little white space on each slide as possible. You can fill the empty space with words, or even better, long sentences. Or you can fill them with figures, graphs, pictures, emojis, clip-art or cartoons. As long as each slide resembles a Picasso or the mathematical formulation of the ignition mechanism of an atomic bomb, you are sure to impress your audience.

By the way, when you present the slides – because that’s what managers do instead of presenting their bright ideas – do not forget to read all the long sentences or go through all the figures and graphs of each slide, preferably with your back turned to the audience. They will appreciate that your body language is telling them they can safely continue to work on their mails because they are not involved in your discussion.

6. Body language makes the difference?

Since you’ve already screwed up your presentation from the very beginning by reading the slides and turning your back to the audience, your nonverbal communication will not make any difference at all in the outcome of the meeting.

Nonverbal communication is about eye contact, voice intonation, using your hands and your body to convince the audience. It counts for 50% of your convincing power.

Eye contact? What for?

You’re right. Don’t look into people’s eyes when talking to them or asking a question. You’ll not only disturb them, you’ll also force them to give a sensible and intelligent answer to a question they do not really care about.

And the hands? Just leave them in your two pockets. Yes we know, you will not look really convinced of what you say or seem committed but you’ll avoid the trouble of finding the best way of using them.

The same applies to your voice. A monotonous voice, without intonation, gives a reassuring feeling to your audience, comparable to lounge music. It is the signal that boredom is a safe haven for mooring one’s boat at several points throughout the day.

7. Closing the meeting? Go for a happy landing!

Of course, you can always stop the meeting by stopping talking.

But the best way is to very quickly go through the 15 slides you didn’t have a chance to show, telling your audience that you will come back to them during the next meeting. That’s reassuring for everybody. No to do’s, no fuss. We call that a happy landing.

Your time is up and you are still alive. Now, just go to the next meeting where YOU will be able to relax, working on your hundred mails and messages. Life’s good!

The Take-away?

Our statistics show that managers spend on average 60% of their time in meetings and that they find 40% of the meetings they attend, are pretty useless. This means they lose on average 1 day of precious time a week. This is 1 week a month or 2.5 months a year.
We have developed a technique that increases management’s persuasion power, improve the quality of the decision making and help managers to get that precious time back.
The outcome? More leadership with less energy drains and a more enjoyable professional life.

By the way. What would YOU do with an additional 2.5 months of professional free time? Think about it and send us your suggestions!