Leading in Tumultuous Times

balancing on a high wireManaging through tumultuous times is often the equivalent of a high-wire balancing act.  The disruption is a source of anxiety and uncertainty for people inside the organization. If linking people to strategy represents a major challenge in normal times, creating linkage during a downsizing, merger or reorganization raises the challenge exponentially.

In tumultuous times, communication needs to be managed in a way that gives people the information they need to keep the business performing at its peak.

Permit this Chesapeake Bay sailor to use a sailing metaphor. Imagine everyday business as a 15-knot wind. Suddenly, out of nowhere comes a 45-knot squall that slams into the side of your boat. That’s the equivalent of a downsizing, reorganization, merger, or any other kind of earth-shaking event.

Managing communication—getting it under control and keeping it there—is much harder during times of great change.

In the following graphic, I’ve depicted part of what occurs during a merger, downsizing or reorganization.

  • Productivity Pit“A” represents when the initial announcement is made. The descending line represents declining productivity and performance as people experience an assortment of emotions. “A” is the vulnerable point at which employee engagement can begin to unravel.  The dots no longer connect.
  • “B” is the productivity pit. Productivity falls to the lowest that it will be during the upsetting event or process. Between “B” and “C”, the line begins to rise as the dots start to connect, or reconnect once more. Emotions shift from negative to positive, albeit cautiously at first.
  • “C” represents revitalization. The dots have reconnected. The organization has regained its productivity and performance. Smoother sailing returns.

The objective of a communication strategy built around one of these earth-shaking events is to keep the time between “A” and “C” as short as possible and the line between “A” and “B” as shallow as possible.

It’s unavoidable to have some amount of time between “A” and “C”. You can’t prevent natural emotions from occurring in a merger any more than you can prevent some period of mourning during a downsizing. However, just as you can’t stop the wind, you can manage the sails. You can manage the communication process in a way that truncates the time line.

The obvious first step in designing a communication strategy is to agree on its objectives. Objectives include “keeping people informed,” but they go well beyond that.

One of our clients agreed on downsizing objectives that were oriented to “when this is over.”  They included:

  • Maintain individual, team and organizational performance;
  • Build leadership credibility;
  • Create a communication process that would serve the organization after the downsizing;
  • Signal the organization’s people values as the organization moves forward.

In most instances, people first want information about the event’s impact on them and their jobs now and after the event. Then comes a need for larger context—vision and strategy-related information—where are we headed and how do we plan to get there.

So, managing communication in tumultuous times requires action in three succinct phases:
1. Stabilize; Get the boat under control.
2. Organize; Get the crew into their respective roles.
3. Direct; Make way in the right direction.

Key Takeaway: During times of great change, when the organization feels chaotic, exceptional leadership throughout the organization is required. Far more than a formal channel communication strategy, this requires that systems and processes, such as measurement, work processes, and rewards/recognition are aligned in a way that helps maintain high performance and shortens the time spent in a productivity pit.

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