By: Kelli Moore
Principal, Ando Advisors
When something significant happens in an organization, leaders may find it difficult to focus on anything but getting through the big event. Changes that are fraught with uncertainty, like leadership transitions or losing grant funding, are most challenging, but even positive changes like launching a new initiative or receiving a large grant will raise questions among staff. During times of transition, “What does this mean for me?” is foremost on everyone’s mind.
It’s not surprising, then, that communication often gets bumped to the bottom of the priority list during major changes. Unfortunately, a lack of communication leaves a gap where accurate and proactive information should be, and employees are left to fill the void with their own assumptions and projections.
A few common myths may prevent even the most inclusive leaders from prioritizing internal communications. Taking time to connect with employees and other stakeholders – especially about major events or changes – is essential for smooth and successful transitions. Moreover, if leaders communicate effectively, even when – and especially when – it is most difficult, they can build trust, understanding and a culture of openness.
“We sent out an email to all staff.” Email is generally the quickest and easiest way to convey a message, especially if your organization has more than one location or if anyone works remotely. Unfortunately, email is not always the most effective, and in the case of major announcements, it should never stand alone. Whenever possible, set up a timely in-person meeting, with a webinar or conference call option, to share big news. If that’s not possible, consider making a recorded announcement. People are much more likely to pay attention if they don’t have to wade through their email inbox to find out something important.
“Everyone already knows.” No matter how long information has been circulating informally, the rumor mill is no substitute for honest – and official – communication from a credible source. You don’t need to respond to rumors; simply provide clear information at the earliest opportunity and commit to ongoing communication as you have – and can share – news more widely. Be clear about where people can find the most accurate and updated news as you move through the transition.
“I don’t know how this is going to turn out.” It’s okay not to have all the answers as long as you’re honest about what you know and what you don’t. Pretending that nothing is happening, when something clearly is, erodes trust. If you aren’t ready to make a formal announcement, say so. Whenever possible, offer a deadline when people can expect to hear something official. When the deadline arrives, if the situation is still in flux, let people know that you’re still working on the most effective decision or solution. People can understand that timelines shift but they aren’t as forgiving when leaders are dishonest or fail to keep promises.
“I don’t have time to respond to everyone’s input.” Though official announcements should come from the top, a few trusted leaders throughout the organization should be designated as point people during a major change or event. Be specific about where people can direct questions, and ensure that those hearing employee concerns are well informed and equipped with all available information. Creating a simple “FAQ” document to provide to senior staff can help leaders feel more prepared, and will help to ensure that the information reaching employees is both accurate and consistent.
When the storm has passed, it may be tempting to go back quietly to business as usual, but after a major transition, communication is critical to help people adjust to the new order. Change provides a unique opportunity for leaders to get employees on the same page and to focus on the future. Let employees know what they can count on, what will be different, and what they have to look forward to. Host a meeting or informal event to bring people together, whether they need to lean on each other – and on you – during a tough time, or to celebrate a successful outcome.
As soon as you’re past the transition, be sure to ask for feedback on communications. Ask employees if they felt well informed, what they appreciated, and what could have been done better. Since the only constant in life is change, you will need to be ready for next time.