Communicating in uncertain times

Published on
April 18, 2013

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Every day I’m talking to people who are in the engine room of the Queensland economy – business owners, business leaders, investors, decision-makers in government, policy makers and opinion leaders.

And I’m also often privileged to be within earshot of opinion influencers and agenda setters in the media.

Common to all of these conversations is the theme of uncertainty. We live in uncertain times – possibly the most uncertain I have seen personally since the late 1980s – and this is not an easy or comfortable place.

People often ask me what can I, as a leader, do during these uncertain times.

I ask myself this every day. I also ask other trusted mentors and advisors, and draw on articles written by experts around the world. I would like to share some of the answers I have found useful.

What must leaders do, and be seen to be doing?

Be visible

Employees need to understand senior management’s priorities, and be confident the right actions are being taken for the business to adapt and succeed.  Keep employees informed about what is happening, what managers are doing, and what they can and should be doing to contribute.

Be open and receptive to change – it’s inevitable, and fear of change is paralysing

Uncertainty brings fear and anxiety, and employees who are constantly working under a cloud of anxiety are under added stress.  Being open and receptive to change and leading with confidence and optimism gives employees permission to embrace change, be confident, purposeful and empowered.

Above all else, trust

The single most important component of a healthy, vibrant company – one that can stick together and change to suit economic conditions – is trust.

Employees know that uncertain times bring uncertainty to the employment market. They accept that difficult decisions must be made. What is critical is that there is a level of trust equity between leadership and employees that they can draw on in uncertain times. If employees trust management, they will stick with the mission. Constant communication and transparency are essential in building that equity.

Have a sound strategy for the business – one that is focused, easy to understand and clearly communicated

In tough times there will be more ‘noise’ than ever, so regular communication is key to ensuring the entire organisation is aligned, aware of the strategy for the business and working toward these common goals.

Recognise that great opportunities can appear

As a leader recognise that, despite uncertainty, great opportunities can appear and encourage your people to seek out those opportunities. Fear can undermine opportunism if you’re not careful.

Demonstrate belief in the fundamentals of the business

Explain how the fundamentals of your organisation are sound, reassure employees of your faith in their capabilities, and compartmentalise the bad news. There is always good stuff and good opportunities, don’t focus exclusively on the bad news but always be honest, or you’ll be seen as disingenuous and lose trust equity.

How can leaders respond at times like this?

Leaders are watched with ever more scrutiny in uncertain times.  Uncertainty will cause some to dig their heels in, and some to take a different course of action every day.  The consequence of the former will be enormous frustration with inaction and lack of empowerment.  The latter will most likely result in a change-fatigued, paralysed team who are focused on keeping their leaders down and finding a better job as soon as they can.

Either way, uncertain leadership in uncertain times is exacerbated by a failure to communicate effectively.

Some important, final advice to consider:

Culture is driven by actions, not words – set the example

Employees are looking for clues and assessing their leaders, and this scrutiny only increases in uncertain times. Demonstrate a steady hand and remember that communication with employees is not only verbal or written – the actions of managers also speak volumes.

Employees reflect and perpetuate the culture set by leaders

A culture of honest communication that embraces change leads to a culture of flexibility and long-term commitment to corporate success. A culture of selfishness and secrecy leads to fragmentation of strategy that will suit factional interests, alienating everyone else.

Show that the company comes ahead of self-interest

Employees follow the lead of leaders. Scared uncertain leaders make for scared, uncertain employees.  Self-interested leadership creates self-interested employees.  Dishonest leadership invites dishonest employees.  All undermines the company, especially in uncertainty.

Leaders need to be aware of how their behaviour impacts employee behaviour, and what messages this also sends about the company and culture.

Inspire energy and purpose

Highly successful organisations comprise people with energy and purpose, who trust and feel trusted by their leaders. Anything leaders can do to foster a dynamic workplace and create an atmosphere of empowerment should be encouraged. This is the best possible combination for resilience through uncertainty.