In this series of articles, we want to look at how we can mitigate some of the downsides of the lockdown we are all currently enduring. Hopefully you are not too far away from at least a partial resumption of life pre-Covid but we also need to gear ourselves for the consequences of a repeat scenario if there is a second wave in the not too distant future. The press has come up with one of the most irritating phrases of the millennia - the “new normal” - as if we are switching from one paradigm to another, overnight. The reality is that we will face a series of increasingly volatile and unstable scenarios where the key leadership characteristics needed are going to revolve around flexibility and consistency. There will be no “normal” for a long time to come.
However, underpinning everything will be an absolute need to maximise the contribution of every single member of the workforce. Now more than ever it is vital to engage collectively and individually to ensure that all opportunities are exploited and all weaknesses are foreseen. The common denominator here is motivation: how well your management team succeeds in motivating and engaging over the coming months may dictate your entire future. Engagement here is certainly not of the happy-clappy variety. It is about survival of the fittest.
We will start by examining the subject of Communication. Anecdotally it would appear that many companies have not covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. In one university I came across recently, it is clear that one of the Faculty Deans has decided that his weekly email to all and sundry should soften them up for future redundancies. His missives are laden with negative threats as he publicly debates doomsday scenarios causing widespread distress and demotivation. He would probably defend this as being realistic but the reality is that he is talking to a very well-informed group of employees. They read the papers and they understand the implications of falling student numbers. They do not need their key influencer adopting the role of the Grim Reaper. His motivation is transparent and from here on in, his chances of taking them with him in whichever strategy is adopted have reduced considerably.
Another more distressing story came from the care home industry where an owner director referred to his clients, the elderly, within the context of a serious communication with his management team as “bums on beds”. Given the current situation, where the care element of many in this sector has reached heroic proportions, this casual reduction of his clients/patients to crude monetary terms both shocked and disgusted his staff. Instead of raising morale with a Churchillian style tub thumper, he demeaned their extraordinary efforts by focussing his major thoughts crudely on the absence of profit. This will not be forgotten.
In my experience, when it comes to communicating effectively, there are three key lessons:
1: You are on show 24/7 and the effectiveness of your communication will be seen in the context of your colleagues’ perception of you, or more specifically your conscious and unconscious behaviours. I have seen many managers, who are impressively articulate with a natural flair for speaking, fail miserably to convince and persuade because their reputations, often for insincerity, proceed them. You cannot do any of the ‘Quick Wins’ in isolation from the rest.
This becomes even more important, and difficult, during lockdown when video conferencing is used. That small camera exaggerates every gesture and impression. I recently had a Teams meeting with a major advisor. Face to face he is impressive and in command of his brief. On a PC he looked distracted and failed to convince me of his seriousness. You may only get one shot at this so plan it out carefully. What am going to say? How am I going to say it? How best can I persuade?
2: Tell them what they want to know. Lockdown will be affecting your colleagues as well. They may feel insecure. They may miss the camaraderie at work and they will almost certainly miss the group chatter or grapevine.
Off-loading information without addressing their concerns in a positive and constructive manner will simply go over their heads and leave them with a sense of disappointment and a lack of fulfilment. Encourage debate, offer scenarios not solutions and make them feel part of the process. Otherwise their sense of isolation will be reinforced. In a crisis situation we, in senior leadership positions, tend to talk about what we think they ought to know, not what they actually want. That intention is usually quite evident and undermines the message.
3: Select the right messenger. Different levels of leadership are needed for different levels of information. For local issues, people often prefer their communication source to be their immediate team leader, supervisor or manager. These people have the advantage of familiarity with both the individuals and circumstances. They can talk knowledgeably about the job, the targets and the immediate constraints. Dialogue here should be mostly attuned to a two-way conversation. So, under lockdown you may have to defer to a subordinate to impart this element. Reserve your own section for matters where they would expect you to oversee. An authoritative monologue is just not going to work. If you want team work, you have to demonstrate it.
How then do we communicate within lockdown when we do not have the advantage of meeting face to face? For small groups, say up to 25, I would suggest the following:
One to Ones
Over the past two decades, I have become increasingly impressed by the power of these simple, low cost routines. In one client’s business, there was a marked difference in performance and attitude of two parts of the business. When we talked to the better performing personnel about what was good in that department, the existence of frequent, well-run 1:1s was repeatedly cited. When we talked to the poor performers, we discovered that their manager didn’t believe in 1:1s. There was no individual communion between the managers and the managed.
The secret of an effective 1:1 is to avoid entirely the idea that it is some form of performance review or pseudo-performance review. It should be friendly but focused on the job, not on extra-curricular activities. It should emphasise extracting the employee perspective.
- how are things going?
- what do you like about your job?
- what frustrates you?
- how can we improve the effectiveness of what we do?
- what feedback do you get from customers (internal as well as external)?
It should be short but regular. In steady state, the duration may be as low as 15 minutes. But the objective within the 1:1 is to make the employee feel that they are valued, that they are not a number. Getting them engaged in why they are doing the job and actively involved in improvement is the key. And to demonstrate seriousness of intent, diarise the meetings and keep to the schedule if at all possible. Face-timing would appear ideal for this interaction at the moment.
Meet the Boss
Zoom or Teams would also appear appropriate for this format where you as the manager avoid presenting a prepared message and simply react to questions from a handful of colleagues. It is preferable, if practical, to have participants come from a single layer of the business to avoid people deferring to their more senior colleagues. The duration should be no more than 45 minutes with attendees primed in advance that they have to come prepared with questions.
Be ready to deal with criticism sympathetically, perhaps even of a personal nature, and try to keep a balanced perspective. However, do not tolerate excessive negativity and be prepared to deflect the debate towards those of a more constructive frame of mind. Done well, these sessions can have a powerful influence on morale and overall ambience.
Sometimes, especially in larger organisations, it is not possible to communicate complex messages through routine verbal channels. Some messages, particularly those highlighting impending change, may need constant repetition. In these circumstances, consideration should be given to some form of written communication.
Before you do this, you need to focus very carefully on what you want to achieve from this route. They can be designed to inform, to motivate, to inspire or to consult. However, you are not in the newspaper business. Most of the examples I have come across over the years fail precisely because they have been side-tracked from the original purpose and end up as glossy puffs written to gain praise for their production values not for relevance or impact.
- this is a routine communications device, nothing more. Nothing less
- you do not need photographs, pop-ups, computer generated graphics or pseudo -magazine type formats. These will simply distract from the core objectives
- keep it simple and in plain English
- the document is for colleagues/employees, not customers. Do not confuse the two. It is also not about PR. Mix the two and you will be accused of spin
- keep the focus on leadership views and opinions. Facts are fine but do not get too detailed with statistics which may be entirely relevant to you but a mystery elsewhere
- keep the message constructive, positive and interspersed with humour. Under no circumstances use it as a device to hector or lecture. I only did this once and never heard the last of it!
- address the issues which they feel are important. In situations where rational but difficult decisions have been made (changed working patterns, adjustments to remuneration etc), recognise that memories quickly fade. Return imaginatively to the subject frequently to reinforce why the decision was made and what difference it is making to the fortunes of the company
- keep a regular timetable
Communication is the lubricant of organisational efficiency. In times of crisis, the effectiveness of your communication structure becomes vital. Adjusting to the new world of remote contact poses challenges but also opportunities. So far it would seem that the video conferenced model is more structured, more efficient and more time economic than the face to face meeting model. We do not seem to spend as much time social chatting and cross talking.
However, recognise that this is about motivation and inspiration as well as information. Many years ago, we had a client whose workforce suffered from very poor morale and minimal respect for management, despite being highly paid. It was a large company where employment levels were due to halve over ten years. When we investigated the problem, we discovered that the communications agenda, designed by a corporate PR/HR department, was solely directed at the 50% of people due to leave the business. There was little aimed at the key personnel involved, the likely survivors.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is now apparent that those that left the business did so on spectacularly generous redundancy/early retirement packages and did not need such an emphasis in terms of communication. But as a consequence of this strategy, the survivors were subjected to the same diet of fatalism as their colleagues. I suspect we have a key learning point here for most of us when we emerge from lockdown. There may be pain but do not aggravate it by losing focus on the ones who really matter - the survivors.
In finality, the success of your communication will not simply be dictated by the routine you select but also by the collective success of your endeavours in the other Quick Wins. For more information on communication techniques, go to chapter 5 in Growing Your Own Heroes (GYOH). You never know - it might help.
Best of luck,
John J Oliver