Embrace Raw Candor to Power Through a Crisis
We’ve all been there. Walls are crashing down around the company yet the CEO’s explanation comes up short. Tone deaf to what’s happening to employees and customers, executives miss the opportunity to talk straight. When they speak or email, the words sound hollow. They fall back on the Mad Libs approach to crisis management:
“The change before us is [challenging / externally-generated / forcing difficult decisions].”
“We need our employees to [cut spending / forego raises / work harder / work smarter].”
“Doing these things will improve [performance / results / customer retention / the bottom line].”
Then there’s the clunker of a close that’s really out of touch. It usually goes something like this: “At the end of the day, if we take these steps, we’ll succeed.”
Do they really think employee confidence will be bolstered by vague assurances devoid of empathy? Or maybe they try a completely opposite approach, painting a picture of possible failure to stoke everyone’s fear in the hopes of shifting behavior.
I know how it comes across. Because I’ve coached CEOs for more than twenty years on their employee communications, I understand their instinct to close ranks when things look dire. As they stretch a protective arm around the company, they mistakenly believe the illusion of stability will calm employees, customers, and investors.
But it doesn’t.
A view into leadership courage and raw candor
A courageous leader I was working with in 2000 took a different tact. He laid bare what was happening as the company filed for Chapter 11. He jumped in with both feet – it was the same day the former CEO resigned. The new boss didn’t use spin. There was no posturing. Instead, he just spelled out the reality of what was happening and its impact on people – every stakeholder who justifiably felt angry, uncertain, and vulnerable.
At the new CEO’s insistence, we adopted a simple mantra and deployed it like a work horse. It was straight forward. It had impact.
Raw candor was the communication strategy.
As a result, nine months later, the company was sold at 20x book value with its most valuable workers still on board.
What did we do? The CEO held all-employee meetings every month, and regularly dropped in on different departments to accommodate more informal chats. He favored face-to-face communication over the written word. His chief counsel spoke in layman’s terms to help everyone understand what was happening. His head of human resources was candid enough to advise employees if they should be looking for another job.
And every major communication had three parts, designed to cover the specifics of what weighed on people’s minds. We were thorough and repetitive. First, we spelled out what we knew. Second, we acknowledged what we didn’t know. Third, we promised to share when we knew more. It’s a promise that the CEO kept, as did everyone in the C-suite.
Here’s how it works.
Step 1: What do we know?
Start with the basics. Though it may seem unnecessary, take the time to state the obvious. Keep it straightforward. Spell out what’s happening in easily digestible terms without speaking down to the audience. You want to paint a picture clearly in their minds – so clearly that it can be easily recalled and repeated.
Why is this an important step? Our brains are wired to seek resolution to uncertainty. People will inadvertently make things up to fill in their pictures of what is, or could be, going on. Fill in those gaps for them, regularly and very explicitly. You’re literally offering people a set of bearings to take the place of assumptions they otherwise create to fill in information gaps.
Here’s a non-business example that illustrates how you might spell it out were you and your friends to find yourselves in a winter travel dilemma:
What’s happening is … our car is stuck. We pull over to the side of a road at 7:30 p.m. when we lose traction. It’s a wooded area with 14” of freshly fallen snow. The temperature is 28 degrees. There’s virtually no wind. We have ¾ of a tank of gas, and chains and a blanket in the trunk. Everyone in the car has a down coat, winter boots, and smart phones say the nearest town is 15 miles away.
Step 2: What don’t we know?
It’s easy for leaders to miss this step. “If I don’t know, how can I possibly talk about it?” However, naming what isn’t known is a way to bring added focus to the real issue. When leaders don’t slow down enough to spell out the questions for which there are no answers (yet), people’s thoughts drift to the questions on their mind. Again, they’re wired to fill in the pictures in their minds. Better to be clear about real gaps in knowledge – people understand and can accept when that’s the case.
Continuing with our stuck car:
What we don’t know is … when the snow will stop falling, how much will accumulate, the time required to attached chains, whether this road will be plowed, if other cars might come along soon, when and whether AAA could get us out, what the temperature will be into the night, how long our smart phone batteries will last, and the concern at our hosts’ home when we don’t return on time.
A good rule of thumb is to repeat what you know and what you don’t know over and over in a tightly choreographed cycle. What may sound to leaders (and communicators) like overkill rarely proves to be so. Instead, it fosters respect for what’s clear and what’s uncertain. And as you work with active feedback loops – listening to your audience’s response and responding to their direct concerns – you’ll point them to one of two categories. That is, we know the answer already, or, we don’t know the answer yet.
Step 3: We’ll tell you more when we know it
Yes, this is a bold promise. If you are a communications coach or a leader yourself, you know this kind of promise makes people at the top uncomfortable. There’s power in being the one who decides when to share information. By making and keeping this promise, you signal to people that you understand their reasons for worry. If you were in their shoes you’d want to know as much as possible as soon as possible.
Promising people you’ll keep them in the know changes the power dynamic. It’s this very commitment that de-escalates their anxiety. While they may not know when you’ll have new information to share, they don’t have to wonder if you’ll share it. That’s something they can count on. And being able to count on it matters.
Back to our stranded drivers ….
We’ll have a better beat on the severity of our situation… once we call AAA and speak with our hosts, and after we locate instructions for installing chains.
The secret sauce — active listening
I often coach even my own teams not to make assumptions. It’s important to ask and listen, getting data to verify information.
That’s why we had monthly all-employee meetings where people could ask questions. If they were nervous or shy in a large group setting, we welcomed anonymous questions online through the company intranet. That makes many organizations cringe. However, if you really want to know what people are thinking, give them a safe place to voice their questions and concerns. Our communications team and the leadership team agreed it was important to listen to employees and address questions we hadn’t even considered.
Also, I got out from behind my desk and walked around even more. The relationships I built before the corporate bankruptcy enabled me to converse with staff and understand what people were thinking and why. It helped anchor my work, too – getting additional questions that warranted answering. It also revealed the reality of what others were going through – from newlyweds just starting their lives with an unwelcome cloud of uncertainty over them, to parents who had mortgages to pay and families to support.
Equipped with fresh realizations about people’s concerns, we returned to step one.
Don’t wait until crunch-time to build trust
As a simple communication technique, this three-step approach can be yours, too, in times of crisis. However, you needn’t limit its application to dire or severe circumstances. Try it during routine meetings when your team is struggling with a difficult decision about one of its projects. It’s a surprisingly potent method of communicating because of how it grounds an audience in reality, confers forward movement, and reinforces trust.
Moreover, you can leverage this approach even when you don’t hold a management role. Take each step and tee it up as a suggestion. For example, “Let’s step back and take a look at what we already know.” Being able to focus people’s attention on the most important issue at hand is, in itself, an essential leadership skill. You can practice it no matter your current title or position.
Just two caveats about messaging:
- Stay within the laws and regulations that govern your industry. For example, don’t violate Sarbanes-Oxley.
- Be attuned to any temptation you might have to embellish your message if you get bored by the repetitive nature of the method.
Candor, promptness, and promise-keeping – offered sincerely – are what will earn people’s trust.
As Candice Hughes writes in a recent Forbes column, making people part of change is essential to their adopting change. It’s true in good times, and even more during crises. Leaders and communicators can choose to equip people with information that helps them take educated risks in the midst of uncertainly. Providing people with timely and accurate data allows them to exercise mature choices about their role, their attitude, and their contribution. It moves them off the sidelines and back onto the playing field where their creative contributions actually matter.
Take your comms strategy to your intranet
An intranet can be a great place to house answers … and solicit anonymous questions. It can also be a place where you provide leaders information so they can answer questions.