In the current economic crisis, many A/E firms find themselves in difficult circumstances. Some have laid off staff or reduced hours. Others have closed offices. Backlogs and revenues are declining. Expenses are being cut. Understandably, employees are anxious. The stress resident in many firms only contributes to the problem. Even in firms that are currently doing well, there is concern about the future.
Good communication between management and staff is critically important in times like these. Let me offer some suggestions:
Increase interaction with staff. Faced with tough challenges, many managers become distracted and distant. They're too busy dealing with problems to spend much time talking with their employees. But that's a problem in itself and it neglects one of the most important responsibilities of being a leader. In tough times, managers should increase, not decrease, communication. And much of this communication should be live, not dispensed in emails. Meet often with employees. If you're responsible for multiple offices, visit them regularly. Effective leaders become more visible in tough times.
Help other managers improve their communications. In larger firms, it's difficult for the CEO and other corporate officers to interact adequately with multiple offices or departments. Unit managers need to communicate for the company at the local level (although this doesn't replace the benefit of communication from corporate management). The CEO or other officers can help this local communication in two key ways: (1) support frequency by communicating regularly with unit managers and informing them about what needs to be communicated to staff, and (2) support consistency by providing talking points to unit managers so they can convey the same messages across the organization.
Be honest, but accentuate the positive. There's a tenuous balance to strike between being open about the problems your firm faces and creating an atmosphere of optimism. Too much bad news can overwhelm and demotivate. On the other hand, too much positive spin comes across as insincere and dishonest. You must try to mix the right proportions of both. Here's my advice: Be honest about the problems, but spend more time talking about what's being done about them.
A lesson I learned from working in risk communication is applicable here. People willingly assume certain levels of risk but resent being subjected to risks involuntarily. The issue is more one of control than risk. So a key strategy is giving people some sense of control over the risks they face. Similarly, employees can handle a certain level of setbacks and problems if they feel they have input or involvement in addressing those problems. Focus much of your communications on the positive actions the firm is taking and how staff can contribute.
Keep your vision and values at the forefront. Detours are easier to endure when you know where you're going. Some firms handle adversity by moving into "survival mode." It's akin to throwing the cargo overboard to help stay afloat in a storm. These firms lose sight of their vision (if they have one) and focus on the present calamities. It's easy to get stuck there. A better approach is to renew your vision and blend corrective actions with your strategy for the future. There's no need to shift from "success mode" in tough times.
It's also important to make your values a recurring theme in your communications in difficult circumstances. Why? Because your values should be an anchor in stormy seas. Markets may change; the firm may undergo changes. But the one thing that shouldn't be subject to change are those immutable principles that guide all corporate activity. Keep reminding staff what you stand for and that these things are non-negotiable. Of course, walk the talk! Strong corporate values give employees a much-needed assurance in uncertain times.
Beware of the convenience of email. Because it's easy to distribute a message across the firm via email, managers are often tempted to use it improperly. Sensitive, emotionally-charged messages are better delivered in person. If that's not practical, a conference call would be the next choice. Why? Because body language and voice tone provide important context for communicating sensitive messages. It's hard to convey concern and empathy by email, for example. Plus it's beneficial to give employees the immediate opportunity to ask questions.
Another downside of email convenience is the tendency to spend too little time crafting important communications. Which leads to my next point...
Appoint a communication team to screen all potentially sensitive company-wide emails and memos. We have probably all seen important emails or memos that were unclear, misleading, inaccurate, sloppy (typos), or even inflammatory. These communications often do more harm than the good that was intended. It's a simple fact that many technical professionals, including A/E firm executives and managers, are not strong writers. Even among those who are proficient, it's still wise to have others preview important company-wide communications before they're delivered. I would suggest that CEOs have someone check all written company-wide communications from them, because any message from the top executive can be considered important.
Remember that communication is two-way. The effect of communication is not determined by how it is delivered, but by how it is received. I have sometimes been blindsided, thinking I had eloquently made my point only to find that it had been grossly misinterpreted. You've probably experienced the same thing. That's why effective management-to-staff communication must have a feedback loop. This can be done formally or informally (both is probably best). The key things are to make sure you (1) actively solicit feedback, (2) listen empathetically, and (3) respond appropriately to what you hear. If employees think you are listening and care about them, they will be more tolerant of any shortcomings in getting your message across.
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