Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Management Communication Advice for Anxious Times Like These

Note: This is an update of an article I wrote in 2008 in the midst of the financial crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic may not yet constitute a serious "problem" or "challenge" for your firm as references below suggest, but it likely will become one. So I think the language fits what you're ultimately going to be facing.

Even in the best of times, management communications with staff are often problematic. I've conducted and reviewed several employee surveys and have found management-to-staff communication to be among the most commonly identified shortcomings. When a firm faces tough challenges, the need for effective communication is even more crucial. Unfortunately that's when many managers struggle most in this area.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, we enter an unprecedented time of uncertainty. How will this affect our industry? Our national economy? How should we respond? The answers remain elusive and rapidly evolving. Most A/E firms still retain a healthy backlog of work, but with growing restrictions on business activity and social interaction, will that continue? What if the federal government orders a widespread "shutdown" to try to contain the spread of the virus?

We simply cannot predict what the impacts will be. This is uncharted water. We've been through tough times before, but this one leaves many business leaders scrambling to determine what steps they should take. And as soon as they've made a decision, the situation has likely changed. Despite the uncertainty, there is one truth that holds in every crisis—good communication from management to staff is critically important.

Drawing from my experiences as a leader in economic downturns, layoffs, bankruptcies, reorganizations, mergers and acquisitions, and the like, let me offer these suggestions:

Formulate and share your response plan now. The past few days we've all received numerous emails from businesses describing how they are responding to the pandemic. Yet many A/E firms have been slow to react. The time is now to determine how you will protect your staff, serve your clients, and get the work done in the age of social distancing. Yes, you may have to update it in a few days, but getting the word out now communicates that firm leaders have things (reasonably) under control. Don't wait until the crisis actually visits your firm; being proactive is the imperative these days.

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. Effective leaders become more visible in tough times. Given the evolving nature of this crisis, more frequent and timely communication is of even greater importance.

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 or uncertainties your firm faces and creating an atmosphere of optimism. Too much concerning 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 concerns, but spend more time talking about what's being done about them.

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. The economy 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 or wise in these circumstances, video conferencing or a conference call would be the next choice. Why? Because voice tone and body language 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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