Spreading the Right Word

As the global economy slows, businesses in this country are looking to see what they can do to immunise themselves from the effects of United States that is looking more inward and more uncertain.
The question on the minds of many leaders is “what can we do about it?”
The reality is that single organisation can do little to influence what happens in New Zealand, let alone the world, so it is important that we focus on the areas we can control. One of these is information.
Companies do not want to alarm staff about the prospect of slowdown in work. Shareholders don’t enjoy bad news either, but that’s another story. There is real fear that messages of potential problems may become self-fulfilling as the messages themselves result in lost productivity, desertion of good people and deterioration of customer service.
These are worth taking into account. So, what do we do? Do nothing, wait and let staff read about it in the business pages?
If you are already “talking” to staff regularly, you will have an easier time of the business of giving them information. Having built up an expectation of some form of regular communication, this is just another update.
The challenge is to give them meaningful information without ringing alarm bells. At the first sign of change in fortunes you need to start educating staff about what it is, what it means for the company, and what it may mean for them as individuals.
You also need to tell them what you are doing or planning to do about it.
Staff want the truth, leadership and plans for the future.
Staff do not want misinformation, uncertainty, confusion and surprises.
The key is to ensure “business as usual” in terms of keeping staff in tune with the figures that drive the company’s success.
If the organisation really does need to take action to cut staff numbers, you will have built level of understanding among staff that will allow for more meaningful level of consultation and smoother transition to the new structure.
If your communications have been haphazard, you need to start the ball rolling. This has to be managed and taken slowly. You cannot move from “no news” scenario to grand announcements in the town hall, without causing the sort of over-reaction we dread.
People need to be educated in general terms about what business numbers mean. We cannot assume they understand the meaning of commonly used business terms, unless you explain them in ways that are appropriate to them and to your organisation.
What, for instance, does “profit” mean unless you carefully explain exactly what it means to your particular organisation? People also need to see that fall in revenue does not automatically lead in straight line to staff cuts.
It is also essential to explain the potential positive impact of internal cost savings in the face of drop in revenue. That is an important first step to explaining and showing people how they as individuals can contribute and play part through their own efforts.
Survey after survey tells us that staff see frontline supervisors or managers as the first and most credible source of information. Make use of this and gain credibility with supervisors at the same time by actively educating them and facilitating process where they can relay that information to staff.
Your more formal communication then backs up the supervisor and supports the message that has already been given. People are suspicious or alarmed if they get written communication from the CEO out of the blue, so you need to prepare the ground for this, by using the supervisor as conduit.
In short, your communication needs to be seen as part of long-term commitment to involving staff in understanding the way the business works.
You cannot start too soon or too late. If it takes an international crisis to kick start it, then so be it.
Communication does not need to be glossy, expensive production. If frontline supervisors are the most credible source of information, it follows that frequent and informal methods of communication are the most effective.
The strategy and the message can be quite sophisticated and complex – credibility can be enhanced by delivery that is low-key and simple.
The challenge is to do it well and do it often – in that way you can get the truth across and give people an important sense of perspective.

Ian Clark is senior consultant with the organisational performance consultancy The Empower Group.

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