How to give high concern messages

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Handling difficult questions requires preparation

In these days of economic and political uncertainty internal communications needs to be ready to deliver high concern messages. Marc Wright gives some top tips on how to prepare for presenting that bombshell.

What is a high concern message?

If the issue involves someone’s job, livelihood, self-esteem or material circumstances, then you really want to communicate at a human level. This is easier when it is one-to-one, but how do you communicate difficult change to a larger audience?

First ensure that your people who are most affected by the changes have already had some one-to-one meetings either with you or a line manager or HR. This is where you can tailor the message to the particular needs of that audience of one; be sympathetic, knowledgeable and capable of giving appropriate news, advice and counsel.

If the changes affect everyone in a team equally, then you can brief them together
in a small group. It’s critical to allow them the chance to ask questions and internalise the message. Facilitation of these meetings requires skill; people are most likely to change when they see someone they respect within their own work team start to adopt new language and behaviours that imply acceptance of the change. If I see someone who does the same job as me and works in similar circumstances, and they are OK with the changes, then I will be more disposed to follow the same journey.

So how do you manage high concern messages in a town hall?

At some point you are going to have to make an announcement about the change at an all-staff meeting. Sooner rather than later is better as in the meantime the rumour mill is at work. Until you make a face to face statement people will fear the worst and their assumptions are always more pessimistic than the reality.

Speed is essential. But so is accuracy…

So speed is essential. But so is accuracy. At the event you are going to have to give some information about the changes that are being proposed or are happening. When you describe the new structure be very careful about the organogram that you present. It will have boxes and perhaps the names of the Unit Manager or
Heads of Department but beneath the detail is usually still being discussed and decided. Make sure that everyone in the audience can see that there is at least a potential place for them in the chart. It is very easy in the heat of a restructure
to use the wrong term or even forget a small unit (usually because they are unaffected).

What you do not need is someone challenging you about an inaccuracy that you cannot defend in a town hall or divisional meeting.

Handling questions and dissent

Do not be surprised if no one asks a question after your presentation. This is quite common during change programs. The audience could be internalising what you say and need time to reflect on the implications. It could be a case of no one wanting to reveal their feelings in front of a large audience.

be prepared to be challenged

Those who do ask questions will be those who have fixed positions. They have already decided what they are going to say before you have even presented so be prepared to be challenged. The way you react will say more to your audience than the words you use, so be neither defensive nor dismissive.  Certainly this is not a time for humour. Be calm and empathetic and stick to the line you have agreed with other senior executives.  Always be polite and refer to the questioner by name. Thank them for their question and express your sympathy with their position. At the end of your answer give them the opportunity to come back.

Prepare – or have your team prepare – a set of frequently asked questions (FAQs) which you can refer staff to. They should also be circulated just before the event to all your reports and line managers so they are ‘on-message’ when they return to their desks.

If a question comes up that you genuinely can’t answer then say that you will research it and come back with an answer that will also be published on the intranet. Much of the information that people want to know will not have been decided at this point so tell them the timetable of decision-making and give a clear
roadmap of the process ahead. Have a colleague note down the questions that
asked and then analyse them to improve the next communication you do. Do not rush away at the end of the meeting but instead make yourself available for people to approach you with their concerns.

There is never the right time to hold a town hall during change but soon and often
should be your guide. Concern levels rise in a communication vacuum and that concern is costing you and the Bank the goodwill of your staff. This means lower morale, less discretionary effort and good people starting to think about pursuing their careers elsewhere.

Communication begins with understanding others

That’s why welcoming and handling difficult questions is a crucial part of your identity as a leader. If you want to promote a climate of openness, trust and accountability in your division, you
have to be willing to face challenging questions, even when you might not
have answers for all of them.

Employees ask these kinds of questions because they are part of the mental process of understanding a new piece of information. As a leader, you have to learn to be receptive and keep an open mind. Applying a communication model designed for dealing with challenging situations often helps.

Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University
of Toronto, describes one in his book The Opposable Mind. What he calls ‘integrative thinking’ is the ability to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in our heads. Instead of looking at decisions as a series of either-or-propositions or trade-offs, we can stay open and learn to integrate the advantages of a solution without ruling out the benefits of an alternative one. When we communicate and answer questions in this mode. We don’t jump to conclusions. We couple our messages with inquiry.

To do that, when addressing questions you can ask:

  • Could you help me understand what led you to believe that?
  • Could you give me an example to help me understand your point?
  • This is a complex situation. I really want to understand where are you coming from.
  • What would you say is your main concern?

Answering difficult questions requires planning. Don’t leave it to chance and
improvisation. Here are five ideas to help you prepare:

  1. Research the background. It is important that you enter the room knowing what is likely to be prominent on your staff’s mind. Read comments left on your blog, minutes of your direct reports’ staff meetings, results of staff surveys, etc.
  2. Don’t let rumours affect your mind frame and colour your answers. Use assertive inquiry to explore what is really going on.
  3. Draft a list of potential challenging questions and prepare answers. However, these should be used more as an aide memoire rather than as a script. You want to sound authentic and spontaneous during the meeting.
  4. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have an answer. People appreciate honest leaders. They know that in times of change, you might not have all the answers. What is important to them is to know that you have the ability to lead them
    through the change.
  5. Keep the conversation going. Answers to challenging questions often need to evolve with time. They require more than one interaction.

After the meeting, you can address topics that concern your staff in your blog posts. You can keep them up-to-date on important developments. The more your staff knows about current developments, the less they will feel the need to ask confrontational questions in future meetings.