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Posted: December 09, 2009

The counterintuitive communicator

How to make the Great Recession a mere blip in your company history

Sherry Law

Will you look back on this recession as not much more than an ugly, but brief, economic blip in your company history? A determining factor will be how effectively you communicate with your employees, who are, after all, the owners of your customers and the face of your brand.

If your best employees are satisfied and loyal, and not just marking time, you'll be way ahead of your competition during the recession and long after. Communication will help generate the high levels of employee engagement and performance you need to recover from the mess we're in. In fact, effective communication is one of the best retention tools in any economy. And it's often counterintuitive.

Employees need clear, transparent, frequent communication about what your company is doing in these extraordinary times, and how and why. If you're hiding out in your office because you don't have anything positive to report-don't do it. Despite your intuition, and no matter how well meaning your intentions, that strategy won't work. Be visible and accessible, and communicate constantly with employees. Following are three tips that may be counter to your intuition, but help ensure your company's continued success.

Counterintuitive Tip #1:
Express your feelings along with the facts; you'll show strength.

Conventional wisdom dictates that when CEOs and other leaders reveal their personal feelings it's a sign of weakness. Don't believe it. Effective communication is often more about feelings than about facts, especially when times are hard. What employees need to hear from you is what you really think and feel about the situation (unless it's stark fear).

Start with empathy. It's important that you care and that employees know that you do. Use phrases like: "This is an important question to me too;" "I really care about this issue too;" "I've asked myself that same question;" "I'm disappointed in this too;" "This is really hard for me to say/admit to you;" "I can relate to your concerns/feelings about this;" "If I heard that I'd have the same questions you do."

When morale is down or everyone's stressed, set a tone of calm and control. Reiterate the company's long-term goals, remind employees of strengths like your positive reputation in the community or your strong competitive position. Repeat a story from your company history about when you overcame adversity as a team or achieved a difficult milestone - or use a personal experience to tell a relevant story.

Make sure employees understand both your current and long-term direction and their role in it. In all of this, express your disappointments, frustrations, hopes, and sincere belief in the future of your company. You won't frighten employees by showing your human side; you'll reassure them.

Counterintuitive Tip #2:
Don't hype or spin the message. Tell it straight.

In an effort to "protect" employees or to keep from de-motivating them, well-intentioned leaders put a positive "spin" on news. This results in exactly the opposite of what is intended. You don't fool anyone with hype, justifications, padding, slick presentations or excuses. Instead, you reduce trust. It's always - always - better to be straightforward, honest and transparent.

Employees can take the truth, even if it means hearing about layoffs and plant/store closings. What they can't take is half truths that leave them guessing about what you didn't say or imagining an even worse reality. Half-truths destroy productivity.

Employees will be paying closer attention to what you say during the recession. Instead of spinning your message, highlight whatever positives there are in the situation, explain what the company is doing to meet current challenges; define interim success; be clear about how employees can help; and tell them how much you appreciate them. Repeat it often.

Counterintuitive Tip#3:
Communicate even if you don't have all the information yet. Certainty doesn't exist.

Remember a time when you've sat on a plane waiting, and waiting, for it to take off. No word from the pilot, and the flight attendants have no information about the delay. How productive were you while you waited for information? Not very.

Magnify that several times for employees wondering about their future welfare as they wait for important news from you-and you are silent while you wait for all the facts to come in. End the wait; communicate with what you have. When the pilot comes over the radio and says, "We're having a problem with closing the door and we're not sure how long it will take to fix; we'll keep you posted," you can take a deep breath and continue reading or working. Given a clue about when they'll get the information they want or need, employees will get back to work.

Even though you're still uncertain, acknowledge employees' pain. Take the time to tell them that you don't have the answers and you understand their concern. Acknowledgement builds mutual respect and trust. Silence, never an option, does the opposite.

Improving CEO communication is one of the best things you can do for your company

These numbers from research firm Watson Wyatt drive the point home:

• Companies with committed employees perform 200 percent better.
• Companies whose employees trust management perform 186 percent better.
• Improving CEO communication is the most cost-effective way to build commitment, trust and performance.

High levels of employee commitment, trust and performance will help your company maintain a competitive lead through the recession and beyond. Challenge your intuition and communicate counterintuitively to turn an ugly blip into a beautiful future.

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Sherry Law, Evergreen Communication, helps companies communicate effectively with employees, customers and other stakeholders. She can be reached at: sherry@evergreencommunication.com and 303-494-5326.

 

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