leadership

After the fires: 7 communication tips to help workplaces start the year

A three-part series on communication actions organisations can take now during the response and recovery phases of the Australian fire catastrophe. 

The essentials:

As those workplaces that closed over Christmas and New Year reopen after the break, a few simple internal communication actions will help both the operational and human responses to the current Australian fire catastrophe. The most effective employee communication responses will:

  • Acknowledge clearly any known employee, supplier and customer impacts.
  • Provide up to date operational and policy information, commit to an ongoing process and provide a ‘single source of truth’ for information.
  • Allow for a human response to the situation, and provide resources. For many, this was not a typical break – expect this to be a talking point.
  • Incorporate a feedback channel, along with a process for asking questions and providing prompt consistent responses.
  • Proactively and clearly share any policies and processes for volunteer leave, employees impacted by travel or health arrangements (for example smoke), requests for group fundraising, matched donations or other community engagement. 
  • Recognise that the scale of the situation means that even people not directly impacted may have family or friends who were. 
  • Reinforce the key requests of organisations for donations or support activities (such as encouraging fundraising over donation of goods unless directly sought by an organisation – work with the peak bodies for this).

The long version:

While a great many businesses remain open throughout the Christmas holidays, this is still the peak holiday time for many Australians. The 6th of January will see many people returning to work for the first time since the Christmas break, and will be the first time that many people are coming back into the workplace. It has been an extraordinary summer due to the extended fire emergency across States within Australia, and workplaces will need to take some measures to communicate about this.

Many large organisations, particularly those with workforces in areas affected will already have had to enact business continuity plans over the Christmas break due to some of the disruptions caused by the emergency, either for customers, or suppliers or employees impacted. Banks, telcos and utilities have already communicated with employees and customers.

And many communications teams would have been operational over the break ensuring that employees are kept up to date about operational risks and customer or client impacts. Some organisations also have employees who are volunteers in some capacity and so will have already been managing this. Many businesses have been managing communication as the need has arisen over the past 100 days of fires, but the scale and nature of the impacts over the past weeks have made an impact on all Australians. 

What to do…

For those organisations who have not yet had to manage any direct impacts, there are some key things to manage and communicate with employees as they resume operations this week.

Context

The scale and nature of the events of the past few weeks mean that many people have either first-hand experience of the impacts of the fires or directly know someone who has. 

  • Has your organisation been directly impacted?
  • Is your organisation doing things specifically to support the response or recovery?
  • Do you have employees who have been directly affected?
  • How does your organisation already communicate about issues and emergencies?
  • Are roles clear and information consistent already, and if not, how will this be done? 

These questions will inform what actions are required as well as who within the organisation will need to be involved prior to communication.

Outcomes

Even in response to a crisis, it’s essential to be clear of the outcomes of your communication activities. Three outcomes that would be helpful at this time are:

Build or strengthen capability. Increase readiness for any escalation or additional impacts by using/reinforcing your effective catastrophe or crisis communication approaches. The best time to have a plan in place is before you need it, but this is an opportunity to build the capability as it is required. 

Effective, simple operational information. Whether it’s simply providing information about Volunteering Leave and Health and Safety or detailed information on things your business or organisation is doing to support or in response to the impacts of the fires. 

Recognise and incorporate employee response. Being prepared for an understandable range of reactions to the situation and incorporating opportunities for involvement, discussion and support will reduce confusion, concern and allow employees to have their needs addressed.   

Messages

Each organisation will have different specific messages according to the context, the industry, the geography and a range of other factors, but these are essential:

  • Acknowledgement that this has been an exceptional time – even if the organisation is not directly impacted.
  • What, if any, are the impacts?
  • What does this mean for today and the short term?
  • What help is available to employees and customers.
  • Specific proactive information about leave, employee support, process or customer changes. 
  • How employees can help.
  • How information will continue to be shared.

More broadly, messages will need to be authentic to the tone and style of leaders and managers

Methods

Commit to providing ongoing regular information and provide any updates promptly.

If your organisation is impacted, face to face or video stream is a preferred way of consistently getting the initial messages across, backed up by the other effective channels* in your organisation. 

Use your most effective channels for push messages. If yours is an email organisation, use that. It may be a messaging platform, text or digital signage.

Have a single source of information. Whether you use an intranet, shared drives, internal social media, or a notice board in the break room, choose one place as the single source for information and keep it current. 

If your organisation has internal social media such as slack, yammer, or workplace consider using two dedicated threads or hashtags: one for operational information, policy, process and questions, and; one for general discussion. Doing so allows for a single source of essentials while factoring in the reality of how people are likely to interact.

* It helps to know what channels work within your organisation ahead of a crisis. There is not a magic formula for this as there are significant differences according to size, nature of work, nature of industry, nature of the workforce. Contact the author for more on this. 

Support

To support this consistent approach:

  • Delay non-essential communication. People will not have the bandwidth this week. 
  • Provide extra time and resources to ensure managers can have face time with their direct reports. 
  • Schedule a talk time. This could be combined with a fundraising activity or more organic. Depending on the size of your organisation, it might be possible for everyone to gather, or it might be of a scale where teams need to meet individually. 
  • Provide Employee Assistance Program links.
  • Empower teams to determine how and where support, volunteering or fundraising is offered. Everyone is different and while crisis brings a strong sense of community, there will be different ideas about how and who to support. Factor this into any organisational arrangements early and allow for choice. 

Lastly, this week is also not the time for overt promotion of the organisation’s efforts. Do the things that matter. Communicate regularly and factually. Provide opportunities for people to talk informally and let that flow into constructive contribution.

This is the first in a series of posts to help organisations communicate effectively during the response and recovery phases of this catastrophe. The next post will include more detailed steps for organisations that don’t have a communication team, and the final post will cover ways for communication and leadership teams to manage the ongoing and future situations. 

For additional information or support, please get in touch

Jonathan Champ SCMP is a communication advisor with 25 years experience across a range of sectors. He is the founder of Meaning Business and creator of the COMMS planning method. 

Thanks to Craig Spencer, General Manager Strategy and Performance at Royal Flying Doctor Service (WA) and Jenni Field, Director Redefining Communication for their contribution to the development of this article.

Why I’m shitposting about #scottyfrommarketing while Australia burns

Friends and colleagues, you probably wonder if I’ve taken leave from my senses for the last few weeks. Not those of you dealing with the day to day of the fire emergencies across Australia: I hope you’re ignoring me and getting on with the practical things and staying safe. 

First, I am not living in an area directly impacted by anything other than some smoke and stories from people I know who know people who have had losses – of property, of animals, and in one case, their neighbour’s life. I am this writing from a place of privilege and fortune and as I do my thoughts are with each community affected, those whose losses are real and painful, and with those working to help others in every capacity. 

Where possible, with colleagues, friends and family spread wide, I am attempting to amplify useful information, knowing that at times like this, people directly impacted are listening to their local news, their local authorities, the RFS or CFA or CFS according to state:

http://bit.ly/AusEmergencyWarnings

And I am following the best advice on how to practically help recovery efforts, primarily through cash donation and legitimate fundraising efforts: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-01/bushfire-relief:-how-you-can-help-frontline-services/ 

I have spent a lot of my downtime on social media being critical of, sarcastic about, and commenting on the performance of the PM during crisis. I’m not equipped to be a politician. I know my limitations. 

So why am I, a communication professional and writer, spending time piling on to the criticism directed to the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison? How does me shitposting and criticising and sharing critiques actually helping while people are still in response mode, wile flames move in, while Defence Force evacuations are occurring in communities that are in states of emergency? 

So what gives me cause to be so overtly critical? What gives me the right to mock #scottyfrommarketing and to pile on with the other critics? In my communication career, I’ve spent a lot of years helping organisations – employees and leaders, recover from bad leadership. Through communication, reputation and culture work, I have seen the residual impact on teams, divisions, departments and whole businesses when leadership has turned toxic.

Much of my communication career has been focussed on trying to help leaders and managers cut the bullshit and communicate in honest, authentic and impactful ways with the people in their organisations. Through listening, through self-awareness, through taking a constructive and humanistic approach. As a certified communication management professional, I am bound by a global standard that includes ethics and truthfulness in communication practice. 

And I’ve seen the damage that non-consultative, directive, ego-driven leaders who are working out their own psychological issues in a way that impacts dozens or hundreds or thousands of employees. 

I’m self-aware enough to know I do not have the disposition, the diplomacy, or the skill to be a politician. But I do know what genuine leadership looks like. What we are seeing from ScoMo to all appearances is a fabrication. 

If during his time as a marketer, Scotty was doing his job, he would have a strong awareness of sentiment. He recently claimed he’s not going to make policy decisions on the back of what people have to say on Twitter. But you can guarantee his team is using every social media analytical tool at their disposal to understand how the tide is turning. At the moment, the responses are crude and rudimentary: attempting to shift the rhetoric and messaging without having to concede policy shifts from the entrenched party positions on coal, climate, cost-shifting emergency response from Federal to State jurisdiction.

And that’s why I am using the critical hashtags and tagging both the Facebook and Twitter accounts for the PM. He shattered his own illusion of not being swayed by public opinion when he chimed in about the firefighter who said ‘he’s not my PM’ being taken out of context. That was enough for him to jump on Twitter to tell his side of the story. It also showed that the messages are getting through from every Quiet Australian who has decided this is not the time to be quiet. Perhaps at some point, through an FOI request, or during a Royal Commission or some other form of inquiry into the responses to this catastrophic season, or when this year’s Cabinet papers are released in 20 years, the effort to monitor and to willfully ignore the views of Australians will be apparent. 

The sentiment is shifting. Other conservatives are finding these positions untenable and unsustainable. When the FT is calling for your head, the markets listen. I’ve said elsewhere in response to the Machinery of Government changes #scottyfrommarketing rushed through in order to beat the Thodey report into the public service that if he was the CEO of a listed company, Morrison’s decision-making would be called into question. 

That was prior to the even more ramshackle and reputationally destructive performance of the last few weeks. Any commercial Board would be assembling their Risk committee and making serious deliberations about the viability of the CEO. Australia deserves better, and despite the banal reassurances of our Chief Marketing Officer, Australia can more than one conversation at a time. Now is not the time for the people in response and recovery mode to be focussed on ineffective leadership but on the survival tasks at hand. But that is no reason for the rest of us, from our privileged positions of safety to not demand more of the leaders who are failing their constituents. 

Okay, now I am ranting. Back to leadership skills. Even the most sociopathic leaders can in the right circumstances be swayed by the things that their minders won’t say to them. 

“When you say ‘we’ all the time, you come across as not taking responsibility”

“You can’t talk your way out of this, you need to show some humility”

“I know you think you are demonstrating strength, but unless you can do it without that grin, you just look smugger”

“You might be hard-wired to deflect and not say ‘I don’t know’ but every time you run the same key message past people without answering the question – even if the answer is ‘you don’t know’, you’re damaging your credibility further.”

“People hate you right now and that’s not some kind of test of wills… unless you rapidly learn to genuinely listen, and not just fake it, you’re going to destroy not only your credibility but also that of the leadership team…”

“You need to understand it’s not about you and what you want to say”

They are paraphrased examples of real feedback that has been impactful with managers and executives in the public and private sector, giving them a moment when they have realised their impact isn’t what they hope it to be.

Scotty would like us to think he doesn’t know – or that he knows best – but let’s make sure he gets some feedback:

www.twitter.com/ScottMorrisonMP

https://www.facebook.com/scottmorrison4cook/

https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm

https://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Parliamentarian?MPID=E3L

The stories of those with the experience at the front need to be heard – not just nodded at but heard by those in power. The stories of kids who have been afraid of the smoke, or who don’t understand why other people are frightened should move compassionate, capable people. There is wisdom and hope and the real community spirit in those stories. 

We deserve leaders who are capable of paying attention to those stories and adapting instead of pushing their own narrative. 

Disclosure: I have worked as a communication consultant for a number of state and federal government departments and agencies. I am not a member of any political party.

3 tools and an essential skill to help managers communicate better

Three tools and an essential skill for manager communication

Organisations ask a lot of their operational and line managers. The day-to-day administration of a team while also focusing on delivering business results can be overwhelming for even experienced operational managers. Functional areas such as finance, human resources, property and procurement regularly decentralise activities to people leaders or provide self-service options that also shifts the action to the manager.  

It becomes apparent why managers can struggle in their communication efforts. An employee’s immediate manager has a significant impact on their experience of the organisation they work for. Across a range of communication audits and studies, ‘immediate manager’ is cited as a preferred source of information, and yet the performance of managers is also cited as a challenge.

It’s no surprise then that so many engagement or communication surveys show that manager communication is not meeting employee needs or expectations. Meanwhile, in research across a wide variety of industries and organisations, line managers in organisations have a consistent request:

Make it simpler for me.

Three tools and an essential skill

There are three simple tools that people managers can adopt that will add to their communication competence and increase their effectiveness in communicating with not only their teams but other parts of their organisation and their stakeholders.

“For us this means…”

Being able to complete a very specific sentence is an important capability for line managers in any organisation. That sentence starts with “For us, this means…”

Organisations are complex. It’s almost a cliche to state that, but it remains an unavoidable truism as the nature of work continues to shift and organisations continue to try and deliver their outcomes in perpetually changing circumstances.

The days of control and command where a manager could know everything that was important to their team are gone.

Given this fact, the role of the manager shifts from being the keeper of knowledge to the provider of context. Providing managers with enough information, giving them time to digest and internalise change, and equipping them to translate priorities for their business area equips them to fulfil their role as a credible source for the team and empowers them to do it in an authentic way.

“For us this means…” is the bridge between the universal messages being driven by the CEO or Executive team, or a corporate communication function, and delivering consistent yet relevant information to the parts of the organisation where change actually occurs.

“Elbows out”

Think about how we usually experience the people we work with. We see them at their most normal as they talk to us day to day about their work or their weekend. We see their natural body language. Regardless of whether they are extroverts, introverts or somewhere in between, we can observe their authentic style.

Now think about what usually happens for managers when there is a substantial change they are required to support. They are provided dot points, speaking notes, briefing packs or a script from the project or human resources or a change team. And then they are asked to deliver those messages. For some, this takes the form of holding the script, and ‘seizing up’ as they are constrained in their communication style. What we see is they suddenly become “elbows-in” communicators as they clutch the script in front of them and lose their natural style.

Investing in managers’ communication competence to enable them to be “elbows out” communicators, comfortable to deliver the essence of a message while not being restricted to a script that forces them to sound inauthentic delivers results in terms of credibility and equips them to be the trusted source that their employees and team members want them to be.

Think before you speak

Managers face time pressures and unfortunately too often this translates into a lack of preparation for communication. Planning communication does not need to be difficult or time-consuming. Five simple questions can help a manager prepare for any kind of communication activity. It might be the one to one meeting they are having with a team member, or it might be the monthly all-hands meeting; asking themselves the following five questions to prepare can help them hit the mark on their message and most importantly, focus on the outcome of the communication.

What is the context of this communication: what is going on here, what has already happened,  and how does that affect what I want to happen?

What outcome am I hoping for and what will that look like?

What message does that individual, team, partner, customer, or stakeholder need in order to move them towards that outcome?

Given the context, the message and the desired outcome, what is the most effective method for this communication? Is this something that needs to be communicated face-to-face?

What is required to support this communication activity to ensure the outcomes are achieved? This might be selecting the right place and time, determining what additional information is required, involving others in creating the communication or ensuring there is a feedback process.

It is no coincidence that those considerations form the abbreviation COMMS:

  • Context
  • Outcome
  • Message
  • Method
  • Support

(More information on applying the COMMS planning approach is available freely under a Creative Commons license.)

While simple on the surface, applying these three skills consistently can transform the quality of manager communication.

Listening is the special sauce that brings it all together

Binding these three skills together is a manager’s ability to listen deeply. This includes listening to what the organisation requires them to achieve, as well as listening to what their team needs in order to deliver.

At a time when organisations continue to struggle to engage employees, equipping managers to be effective communicators has a direct benefit and is far from a ‘soft skill’. Investing in developing manager capability in these four areas provides an advantage in terms of reputation, risk, productivity and engagement.

How CEOs can update their approach to communication

“Communications is an undervalued, lightly regarded discipline in the theory and practice of corporate leadership” writes Walter G. Montgomery in an excellent piece in Knowledge@Wharton, How CEOs Can Adopt a 21st-century Approach to Communication.

Montgomery, Organizational Communication

Walter G Montgomery on CEO communication

He provides six requirements for CEOs needing to increase the strategic focus for communication as a business differentiator:

  • Clearly and repeatedly send the message that communication is valued and essential – including as a requirement for career advancement.
  • Be scientific about effective communication – new advances in data science and cognitive studies should form a part of effective communication design.
  • View the communication environment holistically and assess it as such – it isn’t outsourced to a comms team.
  • Skill build for all with a communication responsibility.
  • Make the top communication job a strategic one.
  •  Focus tightly on values through communication activity.

Read the full article.

A crisis of trust threatens innovation

Edelman have released the 2015 Trust Barometer, subtitled Trust and Innovation.

One of the most significant long-term research projects for communication is the annual Edelman Trust survey. Its past findings have had profound influences on the way organisations communicate:

  • the rise of peer-based communication based on declining trust in institutions
  • changes to native advertising and trusted storytellers
  • the decline of the authority of government as a voice
  • the failure of leadership in building and maintaining trust

The theme of the 2015 study is Trust and Innovation, drawing the links between current levels of trust, rapid change, and the challenges presented by low trust and rapid innovation.

Edelman’s Ben Boyd says of this:

We live in an era where trust must be earned and not managed, where the microscope for transparency is constant and where business must listen and measure the interactions, intentions and sentiments of shareholders. At the same time, the need and capacity for innovation that solves and disrupts has never been greater.

Some standout messages from this year include:

  • An expert and person like you is now twice as credible as the CEO
  • 51% believe the pace of business innovation is too fast
  • innovation is perceived as being driven by technology and greed, but not by improvement to people’s lives of improving the world
  • higher trust creates the opportunity for faster innovation
  • engagement and integrity are areas for focus to increase trust in business

Read more about the trust survey at the Edelman Trust information centre.

How Not to Be ‘Manterrupted’ In Meetings

I once worked in an ASX 25 company where despite there being more women than men in the workforce, only one person in the ‘top 200’ senior manager group was female. Such a chronic lack of diversity changes the quality of communication, collaboration and leadership within a corporate culture.

Similarly, within the communication professions there are a higher number of women in internal and organisational communication roles (although senior roles as disproportionately held by males, as is the focus of research by IABC and Global Alliance). Too often, the biggest issue named by communicators is ‘getting heard’ by management.

At the risk of mansplaining – here are some ways communicators can ensure their voice is heard.

What leaders should expect from their communication counsel

As a leader, what should you expect from a communication strategist?

What a great question, and the subject of a recent post on the LinkedIn CommsScrum Group (requires membership). Having worked with C-suite, executive and Board-level leaders across a range of industries, here are some things I think leaders should expect from their comms strategists.

They will treat you as a person. Trust is a process of reciprocity, but it pays dividends. Experienced comms strategists will understand that leaders are human. They will recognise that in business, an executive can seldom get to where they are without some communication strengths, but that their current positions may mean that constructive feedback about areas for improvement isn’t always forthcoming. A good strategist will seek to understand the executive’s business goals and personal context in order to develop programs that help to achieve both.

They will listen. And they might ask more questions than you may be used to from anyone except the CEO or Board. As an executive, you have so many aspects of the business in your head that making connections, judgements and evaluations about your operation is instinctive. Experienced comms strategists will seek to understand your business priorites from your perspective. And in the process, they will (depending on their approach) seek to understand the ‘why’ before helping you with the ‘what’.

They will build on your strengths. An experienced communication strategist understands that protecting the authentic strengths of a leader is a key priority. They will take time to understand what you are best at. This isn’t the same as never asking you to do something you aren’t comfortable with; strengths are sometimes underplayed.

They will talk to you about the business, not just about communication. Experienced comms strategists are business people using communication as a driver for business results. They will ask about goals, about performance, about metrics, about culture, about competition, about risks and issues. And then they will start talking about communication. If they jump straight to the comms stuff, beware.

With that in mind:

  • Be clear about your expectations and in describing what a successful engagement will look like from your perspective.
  • Be open to professional counsel with a view to building trust.
  • Be prepared to contribute time, opinions and knowledge in the development of strategy.

 

Not the zombie apocalypse

Preparing to work with a communication advisor doesn’t need to be scary

The 5P Business Case – Part 2

Video is an important part of the communication channel mix for employees, but building the business case can be a challenge. To build the case for including video as part of your overall communication infrastructure, cover these five points.

  1. Pain. Find the right opportunity that is causing pain: what challenges need attention, what change is under way, what results need to shift? Is the pain at the top, or is it your employees who need help?
  2. Partners. Find internal sponsors: who has the greatest stake in addressing this issue? What will they invest to see the situation change?
  3. Potential benefit. Put a price on success: What is the value of addressing this issue?
  4. Pilot. Before a TV series is made, producers invest in a pilot to test the concept. This is a solid approach for internal video. Start small to test capability, appetite, and audience.
  5. Prove. Measure the impact of the initiative to build momentum

In the last post, we covered Pain and Partners. Now lets look at Potential, Pilot and Prove.

POTENTIAL BENEFIT

What is the current situation costing the business? What will solving the problem contribute to the business?

At an enterprise level, doing anything that improves communication pays dividends. Companies with effective communication financially outperform those with ineffective communication. A long-term study has demonstrated this can mean that over a 5 year period, a company with effective communication would return 1.7 times higher shareholder returns.[1]

The same study showed that 70% of highly effective organisations agree that “The use of internal social business/collaboration tools for work-related purposes has a positive impact on employee productivity at my organisation.

In order to build the case, however, it will be necessary to get specific.

By clearly defining the change in knowledge or behaviour, you can calculate a return.

  • Will sales increase with better training? Will the time to learn new products reduce?
  • Will safety improve? Will incidents reduce? What is the current cost? What would an improvement mean in terms of days lost?
  • What is the current cost of all staff town hall meetings?

Not every initiative will have a definite dollar positive outcome. Other organisational outcomes may be valuable too. However, in seeking investment for an initiative, it can be useful to target opportunities where there are both financial and non-financial benefits to demonstrate the result.

In defining the potential benefits, work with your partners from Finance to ensure your calculations are relevant and acceptable in your business.

PILOT

Based on the problem and the potential benefit, where can you start?

By clearly identifying the business outcome a communication activity is designed to solve, measurement becomes a simpler task. In each of the following examples, identifying the costs of the current state, and quantifying the outcomes provides a simple method of targeting benefits.

Potential Benefits

Potential Benefits

PROVE the case

What just happened? What changed as a result? How did people use the new approach?

Effective measurement is a perennial topic in communication. While top marketers are comfortable with demonstrating traffic, leads and conversions, internal communicators sometimes struggle with clearly demonstrating the return on initiatives.

However, if you have clearly identified the business outcomes, been clear about how video will help contribute to the solution, you are in a strong position to measure the impact.

Analytics packages allow for detailed viewing behaviour to be measured: who watched for how long, where and what did they use to watch, when did their attention shift. These data help shape the approach and provide essential information for looking at the impact of video content. Combined with audience feedback, this information will contribute to the evaluation of a pilot.

 

Prove the impact

Prove the impact

It’s a wrap – for now…

Video is an iterative channel. It grows and evolves with your overall business strategy. Great stories have a way of capturing people’s attention. If you find the right opportunity and take a strategic approach, people will take notice. You can transform a tactic – a broadcast, a leader message, an employee story – into a powerful strategic tool. Taking a planned approach to building the case and demonstrating the outcomes is the first step in making video an integral part of your engagement agenda and delivering valued outcomes to your business.

 

[1] Towers Watson 2013 – 2014 Change and Communication ROI Study Report http://www.towerswatson.com/en/Insights/IC-Types/Survey-Research-Results/2013/12/2013-2014-change-and-communication-roi-study

 

Special: Why this budget is an employee engagement nightmare and how leaders can make it better

An open letter to leaders and communicators in the Australian Public Service and Government Agencies

It may seem frivolous to talk about employee engagement while a razor hangs over 16000 to 25000 people’s jobs*.

There are around a quarter of a million people within the public service going to work today wondering what their future will be following the first Federal Budget to be delivered under the new Government. They will be wondering whether they are part of the “pain with a purpose” that the Budget is set to administer. If not them, their colleagues. If not their colleagues, those in another agency to be merged, subsumed or integrated.

Poor communication during change has a substantial negative impact on employee engagement and consequently on productivity, performance and culture. Uncertainty is crippling.

Every time an employee hears something fundamental about their role from outside their organisation, trust is destroyed. For workers in the public service or other agencies, where the debate about jobs, roles and size is played out in public, this is a difficult time (It is also one that occurs to a greater or lesser extent each budget or electoral cycle.)

“Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment.” – Dale Carnegie

Disruption disrupts

Major change – transformational change such as redefining the scope and remit of an agency, or bringing together separate departments – in the short term creates a range of predictable responses and an accompanying downturn in productivity.

Study after study** about the negative impacts demonstrate that a number of conditions are a guarantee of reduced trust and disengagement:

  • Creating a high level of ambiguity by referencing major change without specific details
  • Publishing information externally on change that impacts individuals publicly before communicating directly with them
  • Providing no opportunities for input to change or its implementation
  • Not gathering feedback
  • Gathering feedback or research and not acknowledging the findings (even if the findings cannot be acted on it is key to be transparent)
  • Making ‘big bang’ announcements that are not supported with ongoing change and communication initiatives.

The news isn’t all bad

Significant change is an opportunity to maintain and increase engagement. The approaches to implementing major changes – even where it requires cuts – can provide a catalyst for the kinds of leadership and communication that build trust and strengthen the capacity for change. Towers Watson have shown how organisations that get this right see benefits in productivity, trust and capability.

It is possible to communicate in a way that is humanistic and respects employees. A study by Hewitt of change and engagement during the GFC indicated that in those companies where managers were able to explain the context of the tough decisions, engagement was retained or even increased.

A leaner public service will require higher levels of engagement to deliver ‘more with less.’ Yet, unless these changes are led effectively with meaningful employee communication, the support of the employees required to do the work will be eroded at exactly the time they will be needed the most.

In the UK, the recession, and the bite on business and government triggered the Macleod Report, an investigation into the value of employee engagement in the workplace.  Subsequently this has become a major government initiative to foster higher levels of employee engagement as an economic driver.

“As our public services face the reality of an end to the years of rapid growth in investment, it is hard to see how the quality of service we all aspire to see – employees and citizens alike – can be achieved without putting the enthusiasm, commitment and knowledge of public service employees at the forefront of delivery strategies.” David Macleod & Nita Clark

Four things public sector leaders can do now to maintain engagement

1. Make real communication a priority now

All the Ministerial Releases that can be printed or posted on the intranets (plural) will not actually address the communication need at the heart of this challenge.

During uncertainty people need more real communication, and they need it from their managers and supervisors fast. The majority of trust and engagement is attributable to the actions of leaders and supervisors, not memos.

Real means two-way face-to-face communication. Dialogue, listening, and discussion are part of the sense-making process for major change.  This requires planning, commitment, time and skills – at a time when costs are being scrutinised. But the cost of not adopting real communication is another workplace-generation of low engagement and mistrust.

2. Listen

This is what it says on the tin. There are two levels of listening that are key. The first is as a leader, genuinely listen; take time to hear and acknowledge the experience of people facing change. The second is institutional listening; ensure that there are ways of capturing the attitudes, questions and concerns of employees. In environments where listening has not been high on the agenda this is a big – but symbolically priceless – change if it is done effectively. This doesn’t mean ‘just another survey’ or feedback box. It does mean engaging in dialogue about the reality of the changes.

3. Stop waiting to communicate until there is more information

There will always be an information gap. That doesn’t mean there should be a communication gap.  Realise that not communicating is not an option.  Talk about possible scenarios, and talk to facts. Talk about process in the absence of details of the change. When there is nothing to update, tell people there is nothing to update. Ask questions.  Or listen.

If employees are reading something outside the organisation – whether in the news or on twitter – be prepared for some form of communication inside.

Making an announcement then asking employees to ‘discuss this with their manager’ without equipping managers and supervisors to have next-level conversations about change sets them up to fail. Even in organisations with healthy levels of engagement, it is not uncommon for there to be a pain point at the mid-level manager. They are expected to be the local face of change, yet are also typically facing the impact of changes themselves.  If it’s important to increase the focus on communication during uncertainty for employees, it is twice as essential for managers.

4. Be real

Communication is never a substitute for strategy. If the strategy is going to be challenging, saying otherwise is not going to make it better. Although the public is accustomed to spin being part of the political discourse, spin has no place in employee communication.

Discuss what the future requires, what the current situation looks like, and what needs to happen to bridge that divide. For managers and supervisors, this means taking the time to be able to understand change and discuss it.

If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Establish links to the policy and strategic priorities you do have greater certainty about.

The seven things to do next

  1. Have a plan
  2. Understand the context
  3. Put it in real language
  4. Prioritise face to face and dialogue
  5. Listen
  6. Support managers in their role
  7. Communicate some more.

As change and uncertainty is a feature of every industry and sector and part of the landscape of business – the new normal – rather than accepting the negative consequences, leaders have the opportunity to face into the change and use the change as a catalyst for open, constructive communication.

 

*The Commission of Audit has up to 25000 jobs to be cut depending on the recommendations applied.

** including Towers Watson, TJ Larkin, Hewitt, Edelman Trust, Melcrum

Disclosure: I have provided advisory counsel, change and communication training to a number of Federal and State Government departments, agencies and directorates, both as Meaning Business and in my former role as Research & Content Director, Melcrum Asia Pacific.

Leading the first 100 days

Listening is one of the most important tasks for any leader in the first 100 days.

Today marks 100 days since NSW’s Premier Barry O’Farrell took office, and everyone is talking 100 day plans.  In politics, the term ‘first 100 days’ was used by US President Teddy Roosevelt on entering office in 1933. It is a symbolic period: three months; a season.

For leaders, listening is key to the first 100 days

For leaders, listening is key to the first 100 days

In business and organisations, the concept of the first 100 days was popularised over the last decade following the success of Michael Watkins’ 2003 book The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

Watkins outlines a number of areas of focus for leaders for leaders following transition – taking up a new role. These include:

  • Self promotion
  • Learning the new environment
  • Adapting your strategy to the new situation
  • Achieving some early successes – and establishing a vision
  • Negotiating agreement with the boss
  • Aligning the organisation
  • Building the team
  • Establishing a stakeholder and supporter base
  • Keeping focused on the right things
  • Using change to maintain momentum

Many new leaders in organisations struggle with the balance of delivering quick wins that are based on the current organisation, not only on what has worked for them elsewhere. During these changes, one of the most important actions in listening. The challenge is for leaders to be honest enough to say ‘I don’t know yet’. The 90 day planning process is valuable because it builds in a period of information gathering and planning based on a diligent approach.

Organisational listening
In addition to being a key leadership skill, there are many ways to listen to an organisation.

While a leader does not need to go to the lengths of Shakespeare’ Henry V or Undercover Boss, there are some ways to listen effectively to the people in the organisation:

  • Visit the places where work is done – don’t summon people to head office.
  • Small groups allow for people to be heard. Don’t gather 100 people and ask them a question.
  • Ask open questions – “What are you working on at the moment?” “What would make that easier?”
  • Be authentic from the outset.
  • Where there may be concerns about an open culture, supplement dialogue with formal research such as independent focus groups or interviews, being open about the purpose and intent.