The fact that people believe that only one in five business leaders will tell the truth when the going gets tough would suggest that they are not managing their communications terribly well. Having led internal communications during one of the most difficult periods of the BBC’s history (the Savile crisis, resignation of Director General, major cuts, move to Salford), I learned through bitter experience how easy it can be to get the message, language and tone badly wrong, with a consequential loss of trust and belief from employees. What I also learned is that on all of those occasions when it worked well – both at the BBC and with our clients at Firehouse – a very clear and simple set of steps were taken – which I’ve termed the ABC approach.
The sophistication of consumer segmentation that allows for almost individually tailored messaging is now almost taken for granted. Unfortunately, in the workplace we still rely on the outmoded and clunky employee disaggregation provided by an annual engagement survey. Grouping employees into homogenous chunks based on geography or function cannot hope to provide the insight required to tailor a difficult message to a variety of audiences. Whilst employee-analytics plays catch up to its more sophisticated consumer cousin, we have to rely on good, old-fashioned human insight and personal relationships. Where companies manage the difficult messages well, they understand that blanket communications from the Internal Communications or HR functions will not work and they must enlist the support of an army of human intelligence officers – their line managers. As most of us connect to our company through our line manager, having one who really knows us, understands how we tick, gets our attitude to change and knows our threat/reward response is essential to maintaining trust and belief in the leadership during difficult times. As an avid football fan (Chelsea – sorry!), I am in awe of the level of insight football managers have in their players – how they manage those egos, the dramas and the disappointments. Think too of Army Captains. As one told me recently, “Being a Captain was never about being the best technically, it was all about knowing my men. Knowing when they were frightened, when they needed a metaphorical kick.” I am also a fan of McKinsey’s “Small Unit Leadership” organisation design model, where groups of 50 people are led by one leader who is expected to really know his or her consultants. Knowing your audience – or equipping line managers to know theirs – and handling the message on as individual a basis as possible works so much better than the corporate email.
Given the fears surrounding difficult change at work, it is vital that the people who are experiencing it have leaders they can trust and believe in. If you lose people’s trust you cannot lead them, nor can you influence them. Too often I have seen leaders attempt to persuade with a logical argument without asking themselves “why would they want to follow me?”
There’s lots of buzz about “authentic leadership” as an antidote to the sterile Corporate face but what does this actually mean? At its most simple, it’s about being true to yourself and true to others. The best leaders I’ve worked with get this implicitly and have been inspiring in their willingness to show that they are human, that they are capable of humility and who risk lowering their corporate guard and to display a level of vulnerability. But what does this look like in practice?
On a very basic level, they are visible and accessible. There is a temptation when things get difficult for leaders to disappear behind the corporate veil. I’ve often had to play “hunt the Executive” doing the more difficult moments. The most inspirational leaders fight this instinctive urge to hide and have the courage to be even more accessible and visible when things get tough.
Secondly, they readily admit their mistakes and acknowledge when they don’t know the answers. Saying “I’m sorry” has the power to break down any barriers and builds trust and rapport. I’ve seen leaders gain greater respect through lowering their guard and being more open about their uncertainties. At the BBC we asked people what the best leaders did and the answers were typically that they behaved like a normal human being with the strength to show their frailty.
Finally, the best leaders were unafraid to embrace their inner ‘story-teller’. They recognised that presenting facts and logic was only half the battle as it appeals solely to the language processing part of the listener’s brain. They understand, as Kevin Murray spells out in his excellent book, ‘Communicate to Inspire’ that “when we listen to a story we start to co-create the story imagining the scenes, engaging our senses and most importantly suspending our critical faculties. In this way, messages get through. Our right brain is engaged alongside our left brain – painting mental pictures, making connections and finding the emotional side of the story. The story transcends intellectual argument because it puts a whole brain to work, not just one part of it.” The most effective communicators during difficult times are those who allow themselves to rely less on the corporate crutch of persuasive logic via Powerpoint and more on connecting emotionally with their employees through co-creating a heart-felt story with them.
Almost every change programme I have led or been involved in has had a customer-related motive at its core, yet it is amazing how often this is forgotten by the time the messages get crafted. The vast majority of employees completely get the need to change the way they operate and can accept even quite painful changes if they benefit their customers. Change communicators often ignore this fact or assume, quite wrongly in my view, that this won’t be enough to make the message palatable. The most successful communications of difficult messages I have seen have been those that made the link to the customer really explicit and found innovative ways to bring this to life such as creating customer personas to help employees relate the changes to human beings or using sound recordings of real customers so that back-office employees get to really hear what matters. In the end, the move to Salford of Radio 5Live, BBC Children’s and BBC Sport was supported by BBC staff, not because of the shiny new buildings or technology – but because it would benefit Licence Fee payers in the North of England. The team who led the move always related everything back to benefitting Northern audiences and so whilst the upheaval was of course painful, it made sense.
So, ABC – knowing your audience, being yourself (better) and the voice of the customer. Three fundamental steps to communicating during difficult times. Like many things in life – simple, but really not easy.
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One of the upsides of the current crisis has been a shift in the way that leaders are communicating with their teams. When we think about returning to normal, it is vital that we don’t lose some of these four leadership communication trends.
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