It’s been said that the one constant in life is change.
As a firm based in Houston, the energy capital of the United States, we’ve seen a lot of change in our city lately. According to Graves & Company, a Houston consulting firm, ever since crude oil prices began dropping last year, energy companies have announced plans to lay off more than 122,000 workers around the world. The majority of them are in oil field services and drilling companies – and those companies have a significant presence in Houston.
Another constant in life is that people are uncomfortable with change. So, to help employees cope with it, companies need to make communication a priority.
Here are some suggestions for communicating during a time of change:
Ramp up your communications. Communicate more, not less. In many firms, change makes management more tight-lipped. One reason is that they are busy – managing the change. Communication gets placed on the back burner. Another reason is that talking about change or knowing what to say is difficult. Avoiding the subject is easier.
Ironically, just as communication from management drops off, communication among employees takes off. The rumor mill shifts into overdrive. And today, social media make it easy for employees to share speculation about what’s happening or what’s likely to happen. Digital technology has made us all much more connected, and that means information and misinformation are more frequent and powerful than ever before.
If the change you have to communicate involves unpleasant news, take comfort in knowing that research shows employees would rather get bad news than no news. And it’s likely that employees may already know or suspect that something has changed and have begun to prepare for its impact.
Use the appropriate communications tools. We’ve all heard horror stories such as the boss who used email to notify employees that their jobs were being eliminated. Whether due to ignorance or insensitivity, that decision was wrong.
Most employees prefer to get information from their immediate supervisors, senior executives and small-group meetings – in that order. Recognize that employees need a balanced communications diet, so make sure the method by which you communicate fits the message. The fastest or easiest way to communicate, or the tried and true newsletters or bulletin boards, may not be the best. One size does not necessarily fit all.
Be sure your communication is direct and clear. When a difficult message has to be communicated, some people adopt an indirect or subtle form of communication. It usually requires the audience to “read between the lines” or figure out the meaning of what’s being said. Euphemisms frequently find their way into such communications. For example, a supervisor who’s uncomfortable telling a subordinate that his performance is unsatisfactory might casually mention that there’s room for improvement rather than address the performance issue head on – identifying the specific problems and what’s needed to fix them. Or take the situation where an executive leaves or is fired; the company might issue a news release stating that the individual left “to pursue personal interests” or “spend more time with her family.” Most people see through such smoke and mirrors.
Studies show that direct communication – explicit statements, conclusions or recommendations – are more effective. So, when communicating change to your employees, speak plainly and openly – knowing that they can be resilient when change occurs.
Allow for feedback. The best kind of communication is two-way, so when communicating change, be sure to include a feedback mechanism. This will give your audience a chance to raise questions and concerns, and that feedback can help you determine whether your messages are being heard and understood.
When Hillary Clinton decided to run for the Senate seat from New York, she first embarked on a “listening tour;” she’s using that same technique right now as she runs for the presidency. In the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal, Penn State held a town hall meeting with students to allow them to share their opinions and concerns. Seeking input and feedback is part of a smart communication strategy.
There are many ways to get feedback: in person, online, in writing, anonymously, etc. Use the method that works best for your particular organization, situation or issue.
A word of caution: If you’re communicating your message in person, be sure to devote enough time to the Q&A segment. Don’t knowingly or unknowingly cut it short – something that frequently happens when the going gets tough. At the onset of the meeting, reassure the audience that there will be plenty of time to comment or ask questions. Take a lesson from school districts that understand the importance of not curtailing input: some evening school board meetings continue well into the morning hours!
Have a plan. All too often, communications is an afterthought when a company embarks on a change initiative. In some cases, it’s because the firm has no communications function or its communications professionals are not consulted or consulted early on in the planning process.
Just as a company must have a well-thought-out plan for how to implement the change, it should have a well-thought-out plan on how it will communicate that change. A solid communications plan should address the following:
▪ Strategy: Your overall plan for communicating
▪ Messaging: The specific messages that will be used in communicating the change (e.g., rationale, what will change, etc.)
▪ Tactics: The tools that will be used to communicate with employees (e.g., speeches, written material, Intranet, employee meetings,) and who will use those tools
▪ Training: The training or practice provided to those who must deliver the messages
▪ Timetable: Specific dates by which information will be developed and communicated
▪ Measurement: How you’ll determine the success of your effort (e.g., Were messages understood? Are the desired employee actions/behaviors being observed? Etc.)
The centuries-old proverb, “For want of a nail the shoe was lost” reminds us that seemingly unimportant acts or omissions can have serious consequences. When your organization is facing change, be sure your communications are planned and announced in a way that helps facilitate that change.