In tough times, it’s easy for leaders to inadvertently communicate negatives that come back to bite a lot faster than expected. Barack Obama has been a model of consistency with messages of hope even while making the point the US is deeply challenged.
Unfortunately most managers worry about justifying layoffs or cuts they believe have to be made. So they emphasize the intensity of the crisis. How else, they reason, will employees recognize that managers don’t want and didn’t expect to take some of the tough actions, but they must? This risks convincing staff the company is a sinking ship they should consider abandoning if they have the chance and that management is weak for not panning better.
A far better course is to communicate it’s business as usual… prudently choosing contingency plans to fit a tough market and trimming carefully in keeping with what everyone knows are growing challenges as we are all too used to hearing. Efforts to minimize layoffs are noticed. The main message has to be confidence, that we have a plan.
You also have to anticipate that as information gets relayed through layers of supervisors their fears and interpretations lean toward the worst more often than in good times. Senior leaders can buffer this by anticipating it, emphasizing the need to give a balanced message and taking the time to answer middle management’s questions in greater detail than usual. These aren’t idle questions, but ones they will need to know how to answer the moment the step back into their departments.
Wrong answers have a greater impact in times of stress and fear than positive ones and are most easily acted on by your best people. They are the ones most likely to make firm decisions quickly… and you don’t want them deciding to take an offer from someone else. Other companies are looking to poach to replace three or four laggards with your superstar… so a lot depends on motivating those you want to keep. Yet many managers secretly believe everyone will be happy just to have a job. That belief will show in their neglect of communicating motivating information even to key people.