Communicating change does not come easy to most people. Neither does embracing it. But one can’t happen without the other. If senior management doesn’t talk to middle management, then middle management can’t help the rank and file understand how the information affects them. Like media reports, the story will be repeated and embellished by unconfirmed sources that fuel fears and anxieties.
One beautiful fall day my friend and I lunched at a quaint neighborhood spot while the multicolored leaves fluttered around us. Inside, the conversation wasn’t so pretty. Her company had been swallowed up by a larger player which promised 20,000 layoffs. More than a change in weather was seeping in. Many people had already been let go, but most like her didn’t know their fate and were scared. She said: “It’s like being told everyone has cancer but just a select group will be lucky enough to get chemotherapy. Only, no one will tell us who the lucky ones are.”
Perhaps the analogy was a bit strong, but uncertainty can be terrifying in any situation. In this case, there had been numerous employee meetings, emails and communications leading up to the deal, but once the ink was dry, she said it seemed as if old and new management alike forgot how to communicate which enhanced feelings of anxiety, panic and dread. She confided that during a meeting she scheduled with her new boss to discuss her role in the organization, the woman took phone calls, checked emails and had conversations with others who stopped by her office. My friend said: “I felt invisible as if I clearly didn’t matter and was certainly not important to the new organization.”
This woman illustrates the increasing number of friends and colleagues’ complaining about how management communicates change to employees specifically during uncertain times when communicating is more essential and easier than ever. There are blogs, tweets, intranets and social sites begging for conversations which when conducted correctly, could replace rumors with reassurance.
As a former journalist, I know first hand that when the media learns something is brewing, in the rush to be first, they feed the fear machine by repeatedly printing and broadcasting gloom and doom which is not always accurate, comprehensive and balanced. Business communicators can learn something from the types of questions reporters ask when covering stories of change and how closed responses elicit very different responses than more direct open answers.
Question: How many people will lose their jobs?
Bad answer: That has not been determined yet.
Better answer: That has not been determined yet and we are not certain which departments or locations will be affected, but I have been told it will be approximately 20,000 people worldwide.
Question: How many sites will be closed?
Bad answer: No one tells me anything.
Better answer: We don’t know at this time, but have been informed a decision will be made in the very near future. As soon as I’m informed, I will let everyone know what I know.
Question: You’ve opened a new building, hired more people and have reportedly become the fourth-largest employer here. Does this indicate a shift in business to more profitable cutting edge production?
Bad answer: It indicates we’re doing what needs to be done.
Better answer: Yes. In today’s economic environment, it is necessary to compete and keep costs down.
Question: How much money will you save?
Bad answer: I can’t say.
Better answer: I am not at liberty to discuss that publicly until the paperwork is complete.
Notice what’s happening. Reporters ask the basic who, what, when, where, why and how questions to draw simple answers they can put into context so people understand what’s happening and why. While business communicators more frequently speak to other professionals and not reporters, like a journalist, they should be able to acknowledge questions, tell people what they know and openly state why they can’t discuss certain items if they hope to manage messages and expectations.
For example, if a company says, “We are operating as a combined company and will be implementing changes over time until we are fully integrated,” what does that really mean to employees? If they said: “The combination of our companies will allow us to streamline costs, eliminate certain units and consolidate operations which will result in the elimination of an undetermined number of positions before the end of the year,” employees would still worry, but the message would be heard differently.
By sharing what they know as soon as possible, management is better poised to tighten the leaky faucet of distrust and speculation by quietly conveying that they won’t keep people in the dark.