It’s a sad truth that difficult conversations are likely to loom large on many leaders’ agendas over the coming months. As governments rein in their support schemes, it feels inevitable that there will be short-term shrinkage, and beyond that, some major restructuring to be done in many organisations.
For leaders, this is a time when they need to get their communications right, primarily for the good of those affected, but also for the reputation of the company and their own sanity and pride. While HR colleagues are able to advise on process, and Comms people will provide the corporate messaging, ultimately it falls to individual leaders to make the difficult announcement to the team.
No matter how well prepared the individual is, this is always going to be one of the toughest tests a leader has to endure. Over the last couple of months, I’ve helped a number of leaders navigate these difficult situations. By following some simple principles, it is possible to make a ‘success’ of this type of communication. But what does that look like? In this context, it means acceptance and understanding from those impacted, and a belief among those who remain that things have been handled sensitively and fairly. So what can leaders do to deliver these outcomes?
• Frame it personally. It’s tempting for leaders to rely solely on the corporate messaging to explain why job losses are happening. The problem with this is that it can sound like the corporate press release is doing the talking, and that the cold business reality is leading the communication rather than an authentic, sensitive and empathetic leader. This is not the time for an economics lesson. Instead, explain what you want to cover, set the context personally and quickly, and then break the news. Save the detailed rationale for later.
• Set the tone. The likelihood is that people will already have an idea of what you’re going to say before you say it. From their perspective, they want honesty, empathy, sensitivity and fairness. If your communication is guided by these values, you won’t go far wrong. Avoid sugar-coating, or the temptation to send a positive message about the future for those staying. Recognise that this is tough for everyone – stayers and leavers.
• Clarify your commitment. With the announcement made, anxiety and nervousness can quickly translate into relief. Perhaps HR can now take over as you move more to the backseat. This is a misstep. Visibility, engagement and hands-on connection count for a lot in the days after an announcement, so make it clear that you are there to support people throughout as well as drive the process. It will be taxing but worth it.
• Own it. As a leader, part of the job is to carry the decision even if you didn’t make it. You may not even agree with it, but all that’s for another day. You know that people will want to point the finger of blame, and it’s natural to want to avoid this. But the line leader owning the decision is the best chance of securing acceptance and lowering the temperature.
Let’s be clear, there is no magic bullet and leaders will go through the emotional wringer. But following these simple principles will help make something difficult and potentially risky that little bit easier and deliver better outcomes.
Perhaps a more contemporary take on that immortal line is needed: ’when the going gets tough, it’s time to get personal’.
Colin Hatfield, Founder, Visible Leaders