When the situation calls for action. Three principles for leadership communication for major events

When major events in the world affect companies or when companies make important decisions, the situation “calls for action”, and the company must find a suitable response. Communication about important decisions or challenges in the company’s market has become still more critical for the overall business. This article presents three principles for managing company communication in these situations.

On 30 May 2010, BP CEO Tony Hayward went on CNN to apologize to the public for the largest oil spill ever in the USA. He went for the same message he had given in his internal communication to his employees, which was basically about getting back to status quo as quickly as possible:

“There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

Tony Hayward

The message in the specific case has become a textbook example of a bad answer in a situation that requires taking responsibility and quick action. Whether based on a crisis or in connection with decisions regarding e.g. mergers, cutbacks or relocations, the example identifies a need that most companies will recognize: The need to communicate quickly and with a clear direction in decisions that may involve extensive changes to everyday routines.

We will focus in on this in the following, where our purpose is to identify three central principles for good internal leadership communication in connection with major events:

  1. Understand and recognize the emotional landscape
  2. Get your basic story in order – be sharp on “sense of urgency”
  3. Use crisis communication thoughtfully – navigate using your internal compass

Understand and recognize the emotional landscape

some conference

The first principle is about understanding how the situation or decision will affect your employees’ emotions. At this point, emotions are the key window of opportunity to work in when it comes to communicating major events. Crisis situations or decisions signaling major changes will typically create a sense of loss relating to the experience of a “before” and an “after” in the company. It is not a random sense of loss, but rather the experience that something important in the employee’s identity has been shaken at its core. In this respect, negative response to change is often misunderstood as primitive opposition.

However, the emotions actually stem from a competing commitment and which relates to the identity, which due to the situation is under pressure. It is therefore important to recognize and give room for local opinions to form in respect of the sense of loss. It is a leadership task to prioritize this.

However, communication must fairly quickly be aimed at how to make room for the “new”. But not quicker that the employees can envision themselves in the opportunities that emerge. It is a golden rule that, to the extent possible, successful communication should reflect the recipients at their very best. There focus can be on existing strengths or the potential that can be realized because of the change. In most cases it is about strengthening the foundation of trust.

In general, all types of message should be shaped based on an idea of how the message can stir the recipient’s interest while speaking to the need to be part of something important. Too much communication focuses excessively on information and less on what the recipients find important. If the message manages to tap into an emotional state in the organization where the employees to a greater extent seek out and want to become part of the story, the likelihood of them taking ownership and action is much greater.

Get your basic story in order – be sharp on “sense of urgency”

The next principle is about getting a handle on the basic story during the transition the company is facing: The transition from managing the crisis to getting out of it. Or the transition from “the old” to “the new”. In research on change communication, the emotional commitment required to drive the transition process is called “sense of urgency”. However, it has been wrongly translated into “the burning platform”, which builds on the idea that you can only move and motivate people if “the fat’s in the fire”. It is an “away from” figure and should according to classic communication theory always be counterbalanced by a strong vision which the organization can work towards. In practice, this is where most companies fail. Organizations can benefit from strengthening their communication if they also apply a different approach to “sense of urgency”.

There is a greater need to mobilize the passion that comes from the will to succeed as a collective in respect of a common goal.  The key lies in communicating to the employees’ winning instinct. It is not just about identifying “must-win battles”, which can be useful to show the direction but typically incapable of mobilizing commitment. For this purpose, it is necessary to communicate directly to the “sense of achievement” where commitment comes from a clear image of the results the employees’ are eager to deliver. Or become better at. This is an area were we can learn from the world of sports, where the will to win as a team is – well – a winning trait.

A good example is one of the large banks which is going full speed on implementing the group strategy “Winning the double”. This is a basic story that works because it has given the organization as a whole a common goal which is linked to specific results but also because of training programs that have focused on practice and been followed up closely with feedback. Without follow-up with a clear link to real results

Use crisis communication thoughtfully – navigate using the organization’s moral compass

The third and last principle is about using crisis communication thoughtfully, i.e. in situations where the company needs to apologize or express regret. In this case, timing is everything, and generally, the company must enter the battle zone as early as possible. Hesitation only makes the situation worse. However, to begin with, the organization must decide whether it has anything to apologize for and take an honest look at whether it is in fact prepared to change its behavior. If a thorough assessment of the situation points in the opposite direction, asserting your position might even increase your credibility – e.g. by delivering a calm and clear message about why an apology is not needed. It has nothing to do with denial, on the contrary. It is about taking responsibility by standing firm on deeply-rooted values which are in sync with the company’s DNA.

The presentation given by the manger of Copenhagen Zoo on Channel 4 is a prime example. Here, he refused to apologize for the autopsy of a young giraffe while children were watching. From a communication perspective he succeeds because he manages to transform the tale of cynical entertainment into one about giving children an opportunity to learn. That was why the actual killing was not made publicly. It is and will always be brutal and will not teach the children anything. The same cannot be said about teaching the anatomy of a fantastic animal in the hands of the people who have dedicated their lives to taking care of it.

From left

If, on the other hand, the organization has caused major damage, communication that completely fails to sense the mood may be catastrophic. As illustrated by the case involving BP CEO Tony Hayward. That became an expensive lesson. Crisis communication is about letting your internal compass guide you; it is about showing real remorse and humility whenever called for.

This should quickly be followed up by comprehensive measures to ensure learning and changed behavior. In that way, communication is not that different from everything else: We only realize its value when we see the bigger picture. A picture that is painted based on the emotional landscape, the basic story and not least decisions firmly guided by our moral compass.

Tobias Dam Hede holds an MA in rhetorics and is Head of Department and Research at Rhetorica. Tobias holds a Ph.D. in Coaching and leadership. He is also the author of the book Coaching – samtalekunst og ledelsesdisciplin (Coaching – the art of dialogue and leadership)

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