To avoid debilitating the human spirit, a barrage of bad news must be tempered with at least a modicum of hope, of optimism that things can be turned for the better. That through effort and team work, people can drive positive change.
The doom and gloom headlines of the past several months have reminded me of a poignant phrase used by an executive I was interviewing as part of a client project. In spite of its high quality products, the company was rapidly losing market share to foreign manufacturers who were commoditizing the technology on which my client had built its reputation as an industry leader. The objective of the project was to evaluate the readiness of the company’s workforce for transformational changes. Specifically, management had to reduce labor costs and de-liberalize work rules. Very bad news for workers who were accustomed to the highest hourly rates in the industry, plus unbridled overtime premium pay.
As we started the interview, the executive seemed preoccupied and fatigued. At first, I thought it was a reflection of the angst the entire organization was experiencing. But as we spoke, it became clear that this executive was completely demoralized, a level of despondency summed up in a single phrase:
“Everything is broken, all at the same time.”
I recall that apt description of systemic meltdown every day in this age of nano-second news flashes. Both domestically and internationally, at virtually all levels, everything seems to be broken, all at the same time. Events that once were defined and managed on a local, regional or national level are now borderless and much more complex. The situation in the Middle East seems insoluble. Japan struggles to recover in the wake of historic natural and man-made devastation. World markets are in a state of perpetual volatility. Governments everywhere are grappling with impending financial insolvency. Mobilized by social media, hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets demanding freedom and social justice, from the capitol building in Wisconsin to the tony streets of London and a public square in Yemen. Most major institutions, weakened by scandal and corruption, are viewed with contempt and cynicism. Our political system has degenerated to sophomoric vitriol and endless jousting by entrenched reactionaries and emboldened reformers. Not since the Great Depression has the mood of the country been so morose. Everything is broken, all at the same time.
In times of rapid change, people yearn for leadership they can trust and in whom they can have confidence. Leadership that is able to speak to all sides of an issue and negotiate a compromise that is optimally acceptable. Although technology and social media continue to change the way we communicate, the process of leadership communication and the requisite qualities are immutable.
1. Courage – Establish the need for change in unvarnished language and describe the consequences of not taking action, no matter how unpopular or discomforting. True leaders know that no amount of parsing can alter the truth. Most people have an uncanny ability to see through subterfuge.
2. Agility – Explain the alternatives and the likely outcomes of each option. Although exhibiting single-mindedness is important, leaders must also remain open to what theorist Stuart Kauffmann calls the “adjacent possible” in order to push beyond the obvious.
3. Persuasiveness – Focus on how the selected option or combination of options meets the interests of all stakeholders. Leaders know that all parties have to walk away from the negotiating table with something.
4. Consistency – Leadership communication is hollow rhetoric unless actions match the leader’s words. Leaders know they are being scrutinized by their supporters for signs of strength and steadfastness and by opponents for signs of weakness and indecision.
5. Tenacity – Report at regular intervals, good or bad. By candidly sharing information, leaders create an expectation of continuous communication. Leaders must keep in mind that when people don’t feel they are being informed, they fill the void with conjecture, most of which is wrong and far worse than reality.
Effective leadership communication cannot change the unfleasantness of bad news, but it can help to foster an environment in which shared sacrifice and joint problem solving can pay off, even when everything seems to be broken, all at the same time.
Are you listening Washington?