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Communicating Through Tough Times – Let's Talk

If managers everywhere have learnt anything over the last few years, it’s that crisis seems to be a constant. Covid, political turmoil, rocketing energy prices and now, an impending worldwide economic slowdown, are day-to-day realities. To that, add shortages in key skills and there’s a lot that leaders are expected to juggle.

Managing through turmoil was therefore a recurring theme when we were researching for the second edition of  Successful Employee Communications. While speaking to dozens of communications experts, we kept hearing about how the Covid crisis has taught us a lot of important lessons and reinforced some well-established wisdom.

In particular, leaders are getting more skilled at communication and employees are learning to expect better communication at work. And although we have more great technology on hand, human interaction is still the most valuable tool at our disposal.

So, what are great leaders doing to communicate through difficult times? What are the lessons that they are applying?

1. Communication is about more than information

Everyone knows that communication is a two-way process. But what does that mean in the workplace?

For starters, we all know that a flurry of emails, stories on news apps or posters in elevators do little to reassure people or help them figure out how to respond to changing situations.

People value the opportunity to ask questions, check their understanding and share their reactions. We all need to feel that someone is listening and interested in how we see things; leaders who make space for a proper conversation always get better understanding and support.

Of course, there are times when we have to download information or make sure that legal requirements are followed. But, when the news is going to be challenging, conversing with is always better than broadcasting at.

2. People like people

Humans are emotional listeners; we like to hear our workplace news from a real person, who we know.

So, employees often want to make a personal judgement about the source of news when things are not going well. They may not fully understand the context or the complexity but we are reassured when we feel that the decisions are being made by someone with the right values and who listens to our concerns. Potentially divisive or controversial issues such as site closures, job losses or pay freezes are always better received when explained face to face.

Announcements from head office should always be closely followed with a team conversation. It’s a chance to translate high-level messages into something meaningful and to help people understand the implications.

Smart organisations anticipate change by ensuring that team leaders and supervisors have a background understanding of the deep context for the organisation well in advance of news breaking. When they are well aware of market dynamics and how costs and customers are managed, for example, they are always better able to explain challenging news to their teams when the time comes.

3. Find a format that suits your personality

Great face-to-face communication doesn’t need the oratory skills of an Obama or a Mandela. It just needs leaders who are authentic and real.

The advice we consistently hear is that leaders should find an approach that works for them personally. Don’t be forced into booking the local football stadium when you are most comfortable talking to small groups. And remember, it’s about a conversation, so a day working on the shop floor or at an open table in the staff restaurant might build better mutual understanding than the most slickly managed Teams call.

If you can create an environment where you can comfortably listen and show that you are listening, you will be more than half way towards engaging your team.

4. Surprises are best avoided

There are often times when bad news breaks suddenly; it can’t be avoided.

But developments such as redundancies, cost cutting or contract losses are more easily managed if the context has been explained often and in depth. Consider touching in every communication on some common themes such as customers, competitors, costs, cash flow and colleagues; pick topics which really matter and keep talking about them.

If you have a key metric such as average customer spend or inventory value, ensure that people know what it is doing and what drives it.

5. Talk about the future

When things are troubled, it can be tempting to wait for certainty; but we know that, in life, there is rarely a time when the way forward is clear.

Research suggests that employees appreciate leaders who are action-oriented and optimistic in their messaging. When it is difficult to share long-term plans, it can be useful to focus on immediate tasks such as initiatives to help customers and practical steps to reduce costs or inventory. Shift everyone’s focus to next week rather than next month or the next quarter.

And being optimistic doesn’t mean being dishonest or blinkered about gathering clouds. It is OK to accentuate the strengths of the team to get through any impending storms, to remind people about past successes or celebrate the reasons why customers will still need your products.

People will be grateful that there is at least an immediate plan and that leaders have faith in the future.

6. Respect is an experience

There is much agreement that respect is a cornerstone of leadership in hard times. News reports are awash with tales of billionaires bullying their staff and/or of multinationals mistreating employees in markets with weaker labour laws. Act disrespectfully and not only will your reputation suffer, but your current and potential staff will never forget.

Crucially, this means checking that your actions match your rhetoric and being mindful that your staff see everything and will be quick to notice anything that feels unfair or inequitable.

Smart leaders do simple things like provide information when they say they will, tell workers first (subject to regulatory requirements) and never, ever lie or attempt to ‘spin’ the news. And having a trusted advisor who will tell you straight might alert you to potential missteps such as announcing layoffs on the same day that the corporate golf sponsorship is unveiled or remodelling the head office when there’s a pay freeze in place.

7. Start by listening

The internet is full of quotes about the connection between love and listening – with good reason. Our experience is that people who feel heard, feel valued; communicative leaders know this and make time to seek opinions and reactions.

But, most importantly, having a genuine understanding of how people think and feel helps shape your messaging and content. If you know what people need to hear, it’s so much easier to communicate.

Nothing is as useful as listening personally; time spent in the coffee room, in the canteen queue or on the road is rarely wasted. We’ve seen introverted leaders develop strategies for striking up conversations such as asking “what are customers telling you?” or “what changes are you experiencing right now?”.

And if you can’t get out, be sure to ask your reports to gather feedback. Starting leadership meetings by checking in on employee sentiment is a great way to show supervisors that listening matters.

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