The Communication Conundrum

It happened like it often does—a global firm decided to shift its focus on certain businesses and exit the others. It was driven by global restructuring, and, it intended to sell off unprofitable divisions/businesses in India too — even though its businesses in India were not doing badly. Naturally, there were concerns over job retention, and whether the buyer company would absorb employees from those divisions. Moreover, given the market conditions, employees were hardly confident that they would be able to find an alternative job. Meanwhile, with two quarters to meet their targets, one way of achieving it was to ensure that employees were retained, thus keeping the workplace morale high.

 

Genesis Burson-Marsteller, roped in to salvage the situation, quickly formulated a strategic communication plan to address the key stakeholders (employees, customers, media, politicians and unions). The key drivers were transparency, consistency and inclusion. Our strategy included intensive workshops aimed at educating managers within the company over the new strategic direction, so that they were better equipped to manage their teams. There were 30 such two-day workshops conducted to train over 900 managers! In addition, messages were disseminated through focus group discussions, and, a clear roadmap for the transition was transparently shared, indicating to the employees how their roles would continue to be meaningful.

 

Why communication matters

 

The role of communication in managing change cannot be overemphasised. Given the hyper-connected environment and the multiple sources of information within which we dwell, the biggest threat to effective change management is the spread of misinformation—with or without mal-intent—resulting in fear, resentment, and ultimately chaos. Misinformation typically breeds in the wake of a communication vacuum —when people do not know what is happening or will happen, they latch on to whatever fragments of information they can lay their hands on. In the face of change, therefore, the most important thing is to control the messages and the flow of information, and, in fact, use it to your advantage. When change occurs in a planned manner—as it did in the above example—you can control and pace the communication more effectively. But, what do you do when there is sudden change, say in the case of a crisis? Well, you prepare for it. Crisis preparedness is one of the most critical investments you can make today, so that you are in control when change happens; planned or otherwise.

 

3 Factors for employee alignment

 

There are three factors to consider for employee alignment: -

 

Culture: Culture is where the core lies. What are the rituals, practices, behaviours and attitudes that identify people as employees of your company? How do they put these to work to make your strategy and the brand promise come alive? And, most importantly, how firmly are these entrenched? Will these practices and behaviours remain constant in times of change?

Brand: What is your brand promise? How strong is the brand value in the market?  How do your people deliver on it? How do they measure and build on it further? If it gets hit, do they know how to bring it back? What companies often miss is that employees are your biggest brand ambassadors. Equip them well and they will provide you an ROI unmatched by any marketing channel. And, if they do not believe in and love the brand they work for, it is reflected in everything they do.

Strategy: This is the direction employees have to row the boat for the company to reach its destination. It has to be clearly articulated with each individual role so well defined, that it becomes muscle memory that works even when there is disruption.

 

Assessing the roadblocks

 

Now, let us look at the communication challenge that typically exists within a company. There are several degrees of separation between an average employee in a company and the top leadership. In the normal course of business, there are, of course, lines of communications between the various layers and work goes on as usual. When change happens, these lines are disrupted, and in some cases, even suspended. For some time, people continue to do what they have been doing. But, after a point, they are clueless as to the direction to row the boat in. Lack of communication is equated with a lack of clarity and lack of leadership. Very soon, they look for both elsewhere, and jump ship or try to take matters in their own hands, and, end up rowing the boat in circles.

 

In Quotes “There are several degrees of separation between an average employee in a company and the top leadership. In the normal course of business, there are, of course, lines of communications between the various layers and work goes on as usual. When change happens, these lines are disrupted, and in some cases, even suspended.

 

Building the bridge

 

What is the way to break this cycle? Planned and consistent communication. When the change is premeditated, the communication plan should be integrated at the very beginning. When the change is because of unexpected or sudden reasons, crisis communication has to kick in. As mentioned earlier, this too can be created beforehand, as part of crisis preparedness, but even if it has not been, a quick plan has to be created before going all-guns-blazing with communication.

 

Here are the steps typically taken as communicators:

 

1.Identify the core issue—if it has been identified already, it needs to be clearly articulated through possible scenario mapping.

2. Identify the key stakeholders—the people most impacted by the issue and their influencers.

3. Agree to an objective—what do you want the communication to achieve? Often, it could imply mere reassurance that things may look uncertain, but you are working on it and are around for any immediate problems.

4. Listen to the voices on the ground—this by far is the most critical piece. The biggest issue most employees have during change is that they feel no one is listening to them and all the decisions are being taken without understanding what they are going through. So, a listening mechanism is most important.

5. Assess capacity for change—listening will help with this as well.

6.Analyse the gaps—where do you need to focus your efforts?

7. Create strategy and establish benchmark experience.

8. Build alignment at the top levels—so that one clear message goes out.

9. Implement the strategy

10. Measure the results and course-correct if needed

 

The message

 

While we have discussed the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of change communication, we also need to look at the ‘what.’ What is it that the communication should convey? The specific messages may depend on the actual change, but there are broad directions that you could take with the messaging.

 

1. The new vision: With change disrupting status quo, what is the new vision? Is there an ideal that everyone has to work towards? Employees should hear this directly from the top leadership and not the trickled down diluted version from their managers.

2. The process of change: How will change take place? The roll-out process, the timelines, the key players working on it, the people who will be impacted, impact on the usual processes, who will keep them updated and how—these are some of the things to communicate. What is important to note is that this is where misinformation creeps in and does the maximum damage. People want to know how their daily lives will be impacted.

3. Change as an opportunity: This may sound like an aphorism straight out of an internet quote, but there really is a lot to take away from change. But the only way this message will work is if those opportunities are clearly articulated, and not cloaked in platitudes like ‘this is the time to prove your strength.’ What are the actual avenues available to the employees in the changed environment? How can they get to them? What are the benefits of change? Basically, whats in it for them.

 

The mediums of communication

 

Employees are bombarded with information from all directions. In India particularly, the workforce has a high percentage of millennials, and they were all born as digital natives. So, keep in mind that you are not the only source of information. Also, there are often no filters between internal and external communication—what you put out on external channels is not just being read by your external stakeholders, but also by your employees. And, they know what is happening inside, so you cannot have one story for those inside and another for those outside. There has to be a clear, authentic message that is consistent across. Secondly, given the speed of digital communication, your communication has to be just as swift. 

 

In Quotes “While calibrated digital communication is critical, the good old-fashioned face-to-face will never go out of style. Hearing in person from the leadership goes a long way in establishing a direct connect, as well as establishing that the leadership is in control of the situation.

 

While calibrated digital communication is critical, the good old-fashioned face-to-face will never go out of style. Hearing in person from the leadership goes a long way in establishing a direct connect, as well as establishing that the leadership is in control of the situation. If not in-person, the next best thing is video. Finally, the thing to remember is that communication is core to change management. Done effectively, it can facilitate a smooth transition. Mess it up and it can also lead to further chaos and distrust. In that sense, it is also important to identify and establish who is in charge of communication, so that people know who can be trusted for the right information. In an environment of trust, disruption is really an opportunity for innovation and creativity. And, ‘change’ is no longer a dirty word. 

Deepshikha Dharmaraj is the Chief Business Growth Officer, Genesis Burson-Marsteller. She has an experience of over two decades in public relations and communications. Her role spans the two key drivers of business growth for the firm—clients and talent and encompasses growth of clients and partnerships along with developing new services. Deepshikha is also responsible for talent engagement as well as learning and development in the company.

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