Coach leaders to improve their change communication skills.


Recently, I facilitated a Q&A session with a group of communicators about improving leader communication. Everyone in attendance that day was facing big change in their organization, from mergers to restructuring to new initiatives.

As you might expect, the focus of the session was on encouraging leaders to be visible during change. After all, even if answers aren’t known, employees still need contact with their leaders.

Since change continues to be a constant in most organizations, I thought you’d find the advice helpful.

Q1: It’s important for leaders to share timely information. How do we motivate them to do so?

A: There are two ways to motivate leaders. First, if you’re lucky enough to have a CEO who understands the value of communication, you have an opportunity to have your CEO set the expectation that leaders communicate, and to hold them accountable to do so. But if you don’t (or if the CEO is part of the problem), you can still use the second way to motivate leaders. And that’s to measure the effectiveness of leader communication with employees. Leaders respond to data, especially when the feedback is negative.

Q2: Is it okay for leaders not to answer questions directly but say something like, “I’ll get back to you in a few weeks, when we know more”?

A: Yes. Leaders need to be visible. But sometimes they genuinely don’t know the answers. So, as long as leaders get in front of people to say, “We’ll get back to you,” that’s fine—as long as they do.

Q3: How do I make my leader comfortable that he can say, “We don’t know yet”?

A: Therapy? Just kidding. Use research to demonstrate that employees need leader visibility. Use talking points to provide a framework for the “we don’t know yet” message. And let your leader practice the message in a small group session first, like coffee with 15 or so employees.

Q4: What do you recommend when senior leaders water down employee messages to the point where everything is all Corporate Speak?

A: I would conduct focus groups to ask employees what they think of the drivel they’ve been receiving. And then take those verbatim comments back to senior leaders to make the case that Corporate Speak speak is not effective.

Q5: Our leader believes that it is not her job to make employees happy. This might be a cultural issue—employee morale seems to be a North American obsession, and she’s not from here. Any suggestions?

A: You may be surprised to learn that I agree with your leader—I don’t believe it’s the role of the leader to make employees happy. I do believe, however, that it’s the role of the leader to help employees do their best work. That means inspiring confidence. Setting a clear direction. Creating focus. Recognizing good performance. And all those require calm, candid and consistent communication.

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