The good news: As a leader, you know how important it is to communicate with employees during times of change.
But even though you have the best intentions, it's easy to get tripped up when you're under pressure, employees are feeling anxious and the situation is evolving.
For instance, a few years ago, I worked with a CEO who had announced a corporate restructuring. The premise was that, in order to push accountability to the divisions, the company would reduce the size and scope of corporate headquarters. That meant transferring employees to divisions and selling off the headquarters facility.
Not surprisingly, employees at the corporate office struggled with this decision. So at the town hall after the announcement, employees had many questions including: "What's going to happen to the ducks who live on our corporate campus?" and "Where is our walking club going to exercise at lunch if we move to a rented building?"
Those of us experienced with change know that these seemingly "silly questions" are actually a safe way for employees to process change. But the CEO took the questions at face value. "This is ridiculous," he said. "I refuse to answer such frivolous questions!" he sputtered.
What a missed opportunity to listen and show empathy and patience. As you might expect, employees had no further questions about any topic. Game over.
Don't let this happen to you. Avoid these change communication mistakes:
- Think only about the information you need to share. Instead: Tie in "what does this mean to me." Use specific examples of what employees need to do differently to help the company succeed.
- Deliver a message once, then expect everyone to "get it." Instead: Repeat, repeat, repeat. By the time leaders are ready to introduce a change, they've been working with the issue for months. But employees are hearing it for the first time, so they need reinforcement.
- Get irritated when hearing a question you've answered many times before.Instead: Act patient, even if you don't feel that way.How well leaders answer questions can mean the difference between encouraging employees to speak freely and shutting people down.
- Do all the talking. Instead: Be a good listener. Letting people give voice to their anxieties has been proven by researchers to release tension.
- Become defensive when someone asks a tough question. Instead, (take a deep breath) and calmly answer difficult questions. If you don't know all the details, it's ok to say, "I don't know," but make sure to tell employees you'll give them the rest of the information as soon as possible.