The UK’s vote to exit the EU has left UK employees with numerous concerns, from job security to migration status. Although the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU are beyond their control and concrete information upon which to build their response is scarce, business leaders still need to communicate with staff.
However great the unknowns, reassuring concerned staff and being available to respond to their questions is vital to maintaining morale.
Steve Bustin, the founder of Vada Media and a regular speaker on business communications topics, provided the following insight and advice:
Prepare. “The first mistake leaders tend to make when there’s been a period of uncertainty or trouble is to just blunder in regardless. They don’t actually stop and think about how best to approach it before they start. And that is the worst thing you can do in this situation,” Bustin said. “In times of trouble, you’ve actually got to be preparing twice as hard [for a speech or presentation] as you might do when things are going well.”
Be consistent. Before you deliver your speech, sit down with your senior team and agree on what you are going to say because the message has to be consistent.
“Talk to all of your senior team before you go into each of their individual team meetings, so the senior manager knows what’s going to be said, and they can be forearmed and forewarned,” Bustin said. “Then you’re also more likely to bring them along.”
If unresolved dissent becomes public, it will undermine your message, so if there are any dissenters, sit down with them and understand their objections. It may be that they have a point and there is something you need to take on board.
Communicate in person. Particularly in bad times it is important to talk to people face to face. Don’t just issue an email. If you are a leader across several teams, go into each of their meetings separately.
“Don’t just drop in, make a statement, and then leave,” Bustin said. “You become very distant if you do that. Go in and tell them what you know, what you don’t know, and then allow time for questions. Stay for the rest of the meeting, it shows that you’re interested in what they’re doing and you value what they’re up to.”
Show empathy. Another common mistake leaders make is to instruct staff not to worry. It provides no meaningful reassurance. “With Brexit, for instance, we are in a period where it’s completely out of our control, so we all have worries,” Bustin said. “A good leader displays empathy. They will acknowledge those worries and point out that they share them. That will often do a lot to reassure staff that ‘we are all in this together.’ ”
Be honest. Lay your cards on the table. Tell your team what you do and don’t know. If there are variables or unknowns, you should acknowledge those. Chances are the team will know they are there anyway, but it’s good to hear them vocalised by their leader.
Going back to the Brexit example, getting feedback from clients as a gauge of what might happen is hugely valuable. It enables leaders to go into a staff meeting and say either: “We’ve already spoken to our overseas clients, and it’s business as usual.” Or, “We have spoken to our overseas clients, and some are, understandably, a bit jittery. We need to look after them and reassure them as much as possible.”
Don’t make promises you can’t keep. It is important to acknowledge new information that comes to light in a developing situation, such as the immigration status of EU nationals in the UK after the referendum. “But don’t make promises you don’t know you’ll be able to keep,” Bustin said. “If a promise falls through, it really undermines you as a leader.”
He suggested the following approach:
“We all heard the Home Secretary’s comments at the weekend, and we realise that they could cause greater uncertainty. But we value all our members of staff, and we are going to do everything in our power to make sure that they can all stay and work with us for as long as possible.”
Draw on past experience. Back up your statements with as much evidence as you can. Draw on past experience to highlight how the company has previously dealt with similar challenges, or talk about the lessons you have learned from the way the situation has played out elsewhere, or for other companies.
You can also talk through the options available in each of the various scenarios that might come up.
“The problem with Brexit is that it’s very hard to find parallels to draw,” Bustin said. “In this case, you are better off saying, ‘At the moment, we don’t know how this is going to play out. We will tell you as much as we know as soon as we know it.’ In the current circumstances, staff will accept that.
“Don’t just say what you think staff want to hear. You have to be honest with them, even if it’s something they don’t want to hear or that doesn’t fully answer their question.”
Keep communicating. The more people are kept informed, the less space there is for rumour, gossip, and scaremongering. Communication has to be a continuous process. Update staff as often as you can, whenever there is news.
Invite people to ask questions, and set up a dedicated channel for the questions that arise. This could be an FAQ section on your intranet or a hashtag on internal social media platforms such as Yammer or Slack to create a group discussion. Staff can log in and see existing questions on that subject and the answers given. If someone has missed a meeting in which you spoke, they know where they can look for the information.
Convey bad news in simple terms. If you have to convey bad news, keep it simple and straightforward. Use plain English so there is as little room for misunderstanding as possible, and make sure there’s no jargon in there.
“Keep it human, and don’t try to hide behind the corporate ‘we,’ ” Bustin said. “I would always try to use ‘I.’ … At the same time, explain why this is happening in the context of the wider organisation. For instance, ‘I’m making this decision because if I don’t, the knock-on for the whole business is this.’
“If you believe in the organisation you are leading, then you will lead it through good times and bad,” Bustin added. “The bad times are when you prove your leadership skills.
—Samantha White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.