How To Communicate Change In Turbulent Times
Change happens fast and conjures up the worst in humans: denial, distress, anger, frustration, and doubt just to name a few. It’s no wonder that individuals lash out at one another or seek attention from pseudo-sympathetic journalists looking for a scoop.
More broadly, groups can be in denial. The grapevine becomes the only source of real information because executives are too scared of their own jobs to communicate anything substantial. And don’t forget the brash blowhard who seemingly comes out of nowhere to takeover the company during this time of uncertainty.
The organization is ill.
After I left a similar situation three years ago, I became a devoted student of mind-body, yoga, and contemplation. I keep coming back to the two laws of Ayurveda, the oldest healing science developed in India:
1. Like increases like.
2. Apply the opposite to heal.
Toxic organizations become more toxic over time because like increases like (think of the mob mentality). To heal requires the opposite. Leadership that is willing to stand up with boldness, vision, and sensitivity to the objective at hand.
Thankfully, “leadership” is not a title – it’s a muscle. Don’t wait for the perfect CEO to right all the wrongs. She or he probably doesn’t exist. We all experience change everyday and can practice better communication right now.
Here’s my recipe:
Promote The Problem
The best way to explain change is to sell the magnitude of the problem. This inherently sets up why the change is necessary. And allows for a shared reality that we must tackle as an organization, as painful as it may be.
This can be challenging for leadership because who wants to admit failure? First, swallow your pride. You are not the result. Second, focus the messaging around things that were out of your control – despite your best efforts. Don’t pass blame. Describe what happened.
Farmers don’t control a crop’s growth, they only do their best to setup an environment conducive to growth. It’s delusional and counterproductive to avoid the problem. So embrace it.
Say what you know, admit what you don’t, and commit to answering questions. These are the tenets of my favorite mentors and best practices to live by.
So often in Corporate America, people who say what they don’t know, never admit to not knowing, and evade questions…are the ones who get promoted. This is a problem. And if you’ve worked in an office for any length of time, I bet you’ve witnessed it too.
Being transparent is a risk. It is not popular. But you will hold onto your dignity and integrity. And if you value those things, they will define you and carry you through the worst of times.
The universe knows the difference, even when people don’t.
Avoid Charts & Memos
A practical tip that I wish somebody told me earlier on is: resist sharing new org charts. These are templates for design thinking, but have cataclysmic effects on the real people these charts represent.
Remember change happens fast. And change is scary. For a lot of people. The last restructuring I lived through was internally called The Hunger Games with less attractive people.
Charts only further dehumanize this process. Once you highlight the problem, openly talk about how the organization is planning to adapt and change. My last CEO liked to tout, “Do more with less.” This did not make people feel good about their jobs. Perhaps a better tact would have been, “Let’s more effectively use what we have so we can justify investing more.”
Watch what you say. And say it without charts. Practice with a mentor here when in doubt.
This is always worth repeating time and time again. If you are doling out bad news, you have to be more available than the nearest gossip monger. Because that person is working overtime in times of change.
- Schedule regular team meetings where staff rotates who sets the agenda
- Hold office hours (tip: food is a great incentive for folks to show up)
- Ask people how they feel before they leave your desk
The key here is to let people be human. There’s a great moment in the movie Darkest Hour where Winston Churchill is lost over how to respond to Nazi Germany. He hits the streets. Specifically, the subway. People immediately recognize him, and he takes the opportunity to ask for their advice.
It’s magical what can happen when we talk and listen to each other.
Sometimes the best thing you can do during times of change is a change of scenery. This can mean rearranging where people sit together physically or doing an office supply purge with another department.
This gives a (granted, perhaps false) sense of control during a time when it is very apparent we have no control over our circumstances. But at least you will have a clean desk. There’s nothing like literally cleaning the slate in order to ritualize a reset.
When done as a team, it can also be a celebration of change for the better. And that’s change worth talking about.
“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”