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Communicating in Uncertain Times

Communicating in Uncertain Times

 

Article written by Gonzalo Shoobridge (Director of Strategic Partnerships & Client Solutions at Great Place to Work® UK)

 

Summary: This article discusses how to communicate with frontline employees during times of dramatic organisational change.

   

“We can’t communicate because we don’t know what’s going to happen”

 

I have heard this so many times, in interviews with executives and senior leaders, in focus groups with managers and employees. Unfortunately for them, I am afraid this assertion is wrong! What stops senior managers communicating is the simple fact that their plans are not ready. They can’t communicate because they have restricted themselves to only communicating certainty.


Communicate probabilities

It is important for managers to learn how to communicate probabilities. This is a much better option than staying silent. If you don’t know, no need to commit yourself to specific deadlines, key dates or targets, just communicate chances, likelihoods and possibilities. Remember, it’s not a question of only communicating, but rather ‘being active’ in the whole communication process (Read more: Measuring Engagement Risk During Times of Change).

You need to understand that frontline employees will not sit in quiet contemplation while managers wait for all the necessary information to fall into place for them to start building nice accurate plans, plans which no doubt will change during the implementation process.

Throughout the discussion of plausible business scenarios with frontline employees, thinking, planning, and acting will all occur simultaneously and, once the final truth is to hand, the necessary implementation will happen in a much quicker and more efficient fashion because employees will be better prepared. If all those involved in the action wait for a definite plan, it will simply never happen (Read more: Managing Meetings at Work).

What managers need to do is simply tell the truth and keep people up-to-date: ‘this is where we are today and at the moment this is all we know’. This is what creates trust between supervisors and frontline employees. The worst decision management can take is to promote a secretive culture that keeps business developments for themselves and hidden from employees. This is when gossip and rumours run wild in organisations. Silence can be interpreted as proof that the worst of the rumours must be true. The longer communication is withheld from employees the greater the resulting damage. Poor communication in uncertain times carries serious costs: decreased productivity, less attention to quality, lower effectiveness, lower morale, engagement and levels of trust, and even potential loss of talent; all amid higher uncertainty, conflict, rigidity and blame (Read more: Signs your workplace is stuck in ‘Communication Limbo’).


Fully engage frontline employees

Very often communications are designed to please senior leadership; all communications are concerned only with their plans, their ideas and their vision. Senior managers read their communications and like what they see without giving much consideration to the actual recipients of that information.

   
“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said” (Peter Drucker)

Trying to get shop floor workers interested in corporate issues is like banging your head against a wall. Most of the time, concentrating exclusively on the wider company or group (i.e. strategy, business results) is an irrelevance for frontline employees. However, you may rightly think you need to show employees how their individual jobs fit and contribute to the success of the wider organisation by showing them their role as part of the big picture. Whilst this may not help much it is the right thing to do and is always worth trying.

To be honest, frontline employees mostly care about what goes on in the specific business unit where they actually work. They only want to know about the company’s future if leaders can precisely explain to them how and when it will impact their jobs. They really don’t care about what is happening at executive level unless it directly and immediately impacts their work environment (Read more: Make Supervisors your #1 Communication Priority).

   
"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place" (George Bernard Shaw)

 

Remember, frontline employee communication only works when it manages to change employees’ behaviours and the way they engage with the organisation. This only happens when it tackles the immediate information needs of frontline employees. Their information needs are very uncomplicated; they only care about the performance of their specific business unit, how it compares to that of competitors and, finally, the impact on their salary and job security. Effective communication addresses the issues frontline employees are truly concerned with:

  • What the company's problems are and how these will impact their immediate workplace
  • How the company is going to deal with them.
  • How their role as an employee contributes to solving these problems.
  • How they can become empowered to assume more responsibility.
  • What are the direct benefits for them.

In times of change, strong leadership and well-targeted communications are the only approaches capable of holding together an organisation’s shifting work environment. Especially when dramatic reorganisation threatens to disrupt employee morale from within, it is no longer a job just for somebody at the main office, HR or your communications department; every supervisor, manager and executive must get involved (Read more: Get Employee Buy-In to Build an Exceptional Culture).


Final thoughts…

Why do we communicate? What do we want employees to do? Simple, we want them to maintain, or if possible, improve their performance during times of change. OK then, let’s communicate performance, full stop, but in a contextualised manner that is relevant to them: their immediate work environment, job security, salary increase, potential career development and how organisational change will affect all these.

How do we know supervisors will pass on this information? Because in times of change, there will be a huge frontline employee demand for this kind of information. Yes, they will listen, because it is relevant to them.

The widely held belief that supervisors can’t or don’t communicate with their subordinates is a direct result of middle management’s inability to give them anything worth communicating. Give them the right information and you will not be able to stop them engaging and communicating with their teams.

Note: The content of this HR blog has been based on the book: Communicating Change - Winning Employee Support for New Business Goals (McGraw-Hill, 1994) by TJ and Sandar Larkin.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of any other entity.

 


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