Keep calm and communicate
How many times has a note from the CEO to all staff trumpeted the ‘exciting opportunities’ of a merger or the ‘untapped potential for collaboration’ with a new strategic partner?
Such grandiose statements may be a reflection of what the CEO truly thinks or just spin from a well-meaning corporate comms department. But whatever the motivation, such emails or videos can be met with cynicism, even outright hostility, by staff recipients.
What is greeted as an exciting opportunity by a CEO might be viewed as a job threat by a colleague much further down the food chain. Equally, that untapped potential for collaboration for the commercial director or CIO might jeopardise a valued and valuable supplier contract for an overstretched team in a region far away from head office.
It is often the case that those closest to a new business deal or organisational initiative are the ones who are least threatened by it, while those further away have access to less information and so feel that they have less control. Research tells us that a lack of control leads to feelings of powerlessness, accompanied by anxiety and stress.
It is not only large-scale change that can have this effect; it is a natural human response in the face of lower levels of disruption too. Epidemics, environmental disasters, international trade wars, political change and terrorism may be no more than a threat but they can all have an effect on the average employee.
Colleagues at all levels worry about when and how these types of background disturbance will begin to affect their world. Will the environmental disaster or trade war disrupt the supply chain? Will terrorism or epidemic limit the ability to travel to overseas offices? Will political change cause currency swings that affect the value of shares or the strength of the balance sheet and therefore the ability to pay out the annual bonus or fund the pension pot?
Most large organisations constantly monitor the outside world and are required to log and assess risk on an annual basis. Within that cycle, the executive committee’s month-to-month agenda addresses specific incidents of lower-level threats and risks such as a sudden outbreak of large-scale illness or a specific environmental disaster. Experts are consulted, policies dusted down, opportunities and threats assessed, and a view taken. The executive committee feels it has done its job and has it all in hand should things escalate, and so moves on to the next item on its packed schedule.
The senior leadership team’s diligent and responsible assessment and management of risk is rarely shared with colleagues at large, because senior executives decide they ‘don’t want to stir up panic’, or believe ‘there’s nothing we can do, so there’s nothing to say’. But this misses the point. The role of internal communications is not just about providing information. Importantly, it also plays a key role in the emotional health of employees, who need to know that senior leaders are taking action and making decisions even if that happens behind closed doors.
Why are messages of reassurance that the leadership team is addressing these lower-level threats so important to the organisation as a whole?
At the heart of the answer is psychological safety. In the organisation as a whole, within their team or in a face-to-face meeting with their manager, people need to feel psychologically safe. A lack of safety causes anxiety and stress, and employees look to leaders to provide that safety.
When there’s a ‘hum’ of danger in the background, it is heard inside the organisation too – in the lifts, in the queue for coffee or lunch, as colleagues gather for a meeting or pause to chat in the middle of the afternoon. When the subject of the hum is the very person supposed to provide safety, the consequences can be dramatic: it is said that in one particular organisation, there was so much distracting chatter at all levels in the business about the potential replacement of the CEO that the company fell victim to a hostile takeover bid. Of course, this is hardly an everyday occurrence, but wasted time and the productivity drain caused by colleagues worrying about other types of low-level threat should not be underestimated by management.
In response to some external events, a change of policy may be required or, at the very least, a confirmation of the current policy may be useful. When there’s been a terrorism or health incident, for example, it’s always worth setting out what travel is still allowed as well as what is now prohibited. At a more mundane level, managers should, for example, be armed with the company policy about any changes to dress code or travel or working hours if the weather is unseasonably hot or cold.
The reassurance required to settle some employees can be surprising. One senior executive received a genuine question from a more junior colleague about whether they should destroy a suitcase that had been used six months before for a trip to a region that was only now in the throes of a potential epidemic. Whatever the seemingly inconsequential nature of a low-level threat, the importance of offering a feeling of safety and reassurance should not be underestimated.
Alison Young is a director of Leaders in Change. @Leader_Insights.
This article was first published in the April 2020 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine