It really seems as though staff lay-offs have gone viral. And while economic conditions are placing enormous strain on cash flow and business focus, organisations are invariably responding with strategies to cut costs by downsizing their existing staff and limiting investments. It’s difficult to engage with staff in a climate of fear, where cuts to consultancy and contractors is the norm, and permanent staff now face a forked road – either a restructure where they are forced to take on multiple roles or redundancy.
I personally have many colleagues in this situation – on the receiving end, as well as the ones responsible for delivering the news. Having had frank conversations with both sides, a very strong theme emerges: in difficult times, it’s important to be authentic.
Communicating during redundancy or restructure requires an authentic leader. This authenticity is about being genuinely concerned about keeping employees engaged – not only for those remaining through transition, but also with those who will be leaving the organisation. This communication needs to be delivered in a style that leads from the heart – not the head – to ensure that employees remain productive and results-focused.
Authentic leadership – what is is?
Authentic leaders are self-actualized individuals who are aware of their strengths, their limitations, and their emotions. They also show their real selves to their followers. They do not act one way in private and another in public; They are able to put the mission and the goals of the organization ahead of their own self-interest. They do the job in pursuit of results for the long-term, not for their own power, money or ego.They are not afraid to show their emotions, their vulnerability and to connect with their employees. This does not mean authentic leaders are “soft.”
Middle managers also need to be supported through these times, and often training workshops can assist them to focus on not only the right content, but developing the skills to deliver that content that improves engagement with their employees.
How to develop the strategy
Sustaining engagement during uncertain times can be achieved by creating a targeted strategy for communicating to all staff, the context and solutions for the challenges the organisation is facing. Managers also need to build skills in “authentic leadership” and in communicating during a crises or difficult times rather than focusing merely on when and how they will deliver the news.
Undertaking stakeholder analysis and developing key messages in the form of blended communication that can be delivered to the entire organisation, as well as questions and answers specific to different groups should be done before the difficult conversations take place. This ensures that the level and intensity of communication required can be properly assessed (including identifying key influencers), with messages then targeted appropriately. This may be at a stakeholder group level, right down to individual employee or supplier and even client level.
Once the key messages have been developed, the communication strategy needs to focus on building understanding and acceptance (otherwise referred to as ‘buy in’ or ‘on-boarding’) for a sustained period of time. Remember, communication in difficult times isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but should be authentic, ongoing, candid and two-way.
Three tips for developing your communications messages:
- Align with business strategy – This is a clear and compelling articulation of the business direction and the rationale for any organisational changes being made. These messages should be delivered in straightforward and simple language.
- Consistent focus – This is composed of the three to five things that are most important to getting the organization through the difficult period successfully. These messages should be communicated frequently and consistently (no sugar coating – be authentic).
- Line of sight – This is a vivid description of how employees can personally contribute to helping the company reach its goals. A powerful technique for creating a line of sight is storytelling, which any manager—even if he or she isn’t a “natural”—can learn to do.
Three critical communication skills managers need to lead employees effectively during difficult times:
- Listening – Most managers have had some form of listening training, but during difficult times, it’s easy to overlook this important skill. A refresher on active listening and a few practical tips can go a long way.
- Recognising – Employees want to feel appreciated for a job well done—particularly during tough times. Recognition doesn’t require formal programs, awards or prizes. Through simple recognition techniques, managers can motivate employees and promote desired behaviours.
- Walking the talk – This is where “the rubber meets the road.” It’s about ensuring that managers’ words and actions are aligned, and that they model the behaviours that the organization needs its employees to demonstrate.
Effective employee communication isn’t just good for morale or company reputation; it is a leading indicator of financial performance and increased market value.
As they say, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” And with the right road map for sustaining engagement, an organization can steer through the tough times to successfully reach the other side.