Hello?

Are you tired of sending out the same key messages to your workforce? Is your leadership team complaining about over-communicating the same messages without any new information? If this is your situation, then good. You are doing it right. Resist the temptation to hold back, despite desperate pleas from your top leadership. However, if this scenario does not ring true for you, then you are falling prey to one of the biggest sand traps that engulf transformative change efforts. Although it is common sense and common knowledge that communication is essential on a major transformation, most leaders do an underwhelming job and then, are shocked, when everybody is confused.

Did You Read That Email?

The biggest misfire with communication usually stems from a misunderstanding of its fundamental goal. Many people believe that the objective of communication is to send information. Once a communication is published, the activity is complete, right? Wrong. I was working with a leader on a major transformation who was frustrated with a workforce that was constantly asking him the same questions – the answers were easily accessible on the company’s website by way of an FAQ document. When I asked the leader how the workforce was supposed to know where to find this document, he sharply responded, “Well, we sent an email out weeks ago. Don’t people read their email?” This is indicative of someone who does not understand the whole point of communication — for the target audience to receive and process information.

Regardless of your media or channels of communication, if your intended audience does not actually receive and process the information, then you are not communicating. One of your prime imperatives when launching a major initiative is to create a compelling vision. However, all that work is worthless if the workforce does not internalize it. If your current organizational design is dysfunctional and you need to burn a bridge with the current state, your workforce must actually process this reality before they act with any urgency. None of this will happen with a simple email. Your communication strategy must be more robust, especially around key messages.

As a rule of thumb, you should communicate key messages six different times in six different ways. This is known as the 6×6 strategy. Email is a fine communication channel but sending just one email about a key message (like your vision) is not nearly enough. When I setup a communication strategy and plan, I organize it into campaigns: coordinated communication activities that center around one key message and one stakeholder group. I use email, posters, flyers, videos, websites, digital signage, etc. to communicate the same key message over and over again. Hopefully, by the sixth time hearing a message, it will finally sink in. And you would be surprised how many times that isn’t enough! Don’t listen to people who are telling you too much communication is going out. It is nearly impossible to over-communicate your key messages, but it’s very easy to under-communicate because it feels right. If you are not sick of working on the same messages over and over again, something is wrong.

A Need-To-Know Basis

The other problem I often see with leaders is the cloak-and-dagger approach to communicating with the workforce. They feel information about the change should be locked and sealed behind closed doors, with only a small number of people in the know (sometimes referred to as the “clean team”). This mindset can manifest for any number of reasons, but it is usually fueled by a pretentious sense of confidentiality (typically fanned on by lawyers) and a blatant disregard for the workforce’s intrinsic capacity to handle the truth. The other gross error that usually accompanies this modus operandi is the assumption that all this secret information will stay contained, and under the threat of termination with cause, the clean team will keep their mouths tightly shut. Good luck with that.

During a transformational change, hiding information severely compromises a leader’s trustworthiness. It is important to maintain that trust to avoid a major upheaval.

Absence of information is the breeding ground for misinformation.

People will sense that something is wrong and start a rumor mill that usually paints a picture far worse than reality. I have been involved in several transformations where the workforce erroneously assumed there would be layoffs. This is typically the last thing any leader wants to do, but how is the workforce supposed to know that if you don’t tell them?

Furthermore, when your “secrets” leak out into the workforce — and they will leak — your workforce will feel insulted that you can’t just tell them the truth. Many leaders feel their people must be protected from the hard realities of their organization. They often feel nervous to deliver upsetting or controversial news, for fear of unnecessary anxiety, loss of productivity, and possibly harm due to distraction. Oftentimes, contractors and consultants are blindsided by abrupt terminations, so they stay focused on the job until the last minute. This is a very destructive set of beliefs as it signals a lack of trust in the people you should be trusting the most. A hallmark of a great leader is one who confronts reality and is not afraid to let the workforce know the truth — even when it hurts.

Conclusion

It is well known and understood that good communication is essential on any major change effort. However, most leaders don’t do enough. Communication efforts usually fall flat because everyone is focused on activity (sending email) and nobody is focused on outcomes (stakeholders receiving and processing information). To ensure key messages land, communicate at least six times in six different ways and test for understanding until you know the message is understood. Also, communicate early and often — never withhold information from the workforce. Let them know what you know as soon as you know it. If you put your trust in them, they will put their trust in you. Communication is the foundation — make sure you get it right.