What employees need to hear right now from their managers

Americans are facing the largest disruption in business-as-usual since the 9/11 attacks. need to hear from their managers right now.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, American companies are now facing the largest disruption in business-as-usual since the 9/11 attacks. But there’s a simple tool these companies can use so as to speak to what employees need to hear from their managers right now.

The larger sense of uncertainty that looms over us now is almost palpable. And this disruption has left many of your employees terrified of whatever is to come next.

As such, it can be difficult for you as a company to figure out exactly what to say to employees who are now stuck at home and unclear of whether they’ll even still have a job in a year’s time. How can a company’s leadership ultimately inspire a greater sense of safety in their people and ensure that they feel included in a time of enforced isolation?

Well-meaning quick hacks

What a company might typically do is find some sort of generic, we-will-get-through-this type of language and hope for the best. In doing this they believe that the best they can do is say something simply for the sake of saying something.

This becomes a problem, though, because generic language doesn’t serve diverse populations. Whether because of different backgrounds, perspectives, or even situations, any given employee has a different relationship to what is happening. Each person is struggling in their own way, and if all a company can say is “we will get through this” then it’s unlikely to even register as anything more than insincere corporate speak.

But what if this obstacle actually shines a light on what your employees need to hear right now from their managers?

What terrible meetings can teach us about disruption

Back when I worked in corporate America I attended a meeting that was meant to introduce different departments to a new content creation system. Executive leadership was looking at it as a possible solution to implement throughout a company of over 1,000 employees. Several members of the IT team were charged with the task of describing it to us.

However, the meeting got derailed not even halfway through when people started raising their hands and objecting to its use because it was going to change their way of doing things. The meeting was an hour long and about 35 or 40 minutes of it was just people asking questions about their specific task list.

We never implemented the system, nor any other system while I worked there.

What that meeting highlights is the problem that companies face when employees are confronted with disruption – their fear of change becomes so strong that they completely check out.

Why were they so afraid of that system? It was just software, after all. But this ultimately happened because the leaders of the meeting failed to start the meeting speaking to the many different problems that the employees had as the employees themselves experienced them: waiting to hear back from people, too many emails, bringing outdated versions of documents to meetings, and other things that the software was meant to solve.

In other words, the employees had a diverse array of perspectives, and the meeting became derailed because people’s individual relationships to the disruption weren’t acknowledged before the way forward was presented.

But how does this relate to what your employees need to hear right now from their managers?


A simple but powerful re-frame

Companies now have a powerful opportunity to avoid a similar and even larger scale derailment by taking a simple step in their corporate communications. It’s a step that can foster greater inclusion among all employees during this uncertain time.

Much like was described above around what could have happened in that meeting but didn’t, when you and your managers communicate to all of your employees through emails, newsletters, videos, or virtual calls, as leadership you can simply acknowledge some of the different problems individual employees are experiencing in their own world before unifying everything under a common, more general problem. Starting with this step, a message could be structured as follows:

  1. Acknowledge individual problems: Identify specific issues or obstacles that employees are facing right now, today
  2. Distill this down to a central problem: Offer a larger, umbrella-like theme behind all these disparate problems, as this will bridge the gap any given employee may feel between themselves and their fellow employees
  3. State your company’s north star: Remind your people of what your company has always stood for and has always held as important for them and the customers you serve
  4. Apply that larger vision to the disruption: Connect the dots between what you’ve always done and what will be done moving forward, and how that allows for a change in how to adapt to this uncertainty.

For example, let’s say that a cruise ship company is now faced with tremendous uncertainty given how the travel industry has been rocked by COVID-19. They might start with everyone’s problems including how they’re isolated from everyone, being forced to use technology they may hate, how forecasts and projections being shared on the news seem foreboding, and how many of them are confronted with anxiety around job security. Then, they would reconcile all of those different issues around the common umbrella of how everyone simply feels an ongoing, low-level fear of the unknown that’s tainting their experience moment to moment. Per the third step, they can remind their people of how their work as a cruise company has been crafting a safe environment in which to experience the uncertainty of adventure, and then finally they might explain two to three things that they’re going to do to help their own employees to feel safer during this uncertainty as well.

How might a company even know that they are addressing the problems as their employees face them? If that isn’t already clear to leadership, then they have an opportunity to first ask at least a sampling of them what kinds of obstacles are most prevalent in their day-to-day lives since the outbreak. This has the added benefit of helping the employees who were directly asked to feel seen and heard on a more intimate level.

Disruption leads to a common plight

The larger idea here is rather simple: when employees feel seen first, they’ll be more able to relate their co-workers in what you will offer to them as a common plight among everyone company-wide. The single most powerful way to unify a diverse population is through a common problem.

What do your employees need to hear right now from their managers? They need to hear that their individual problem as they are experiencing it today actually matters to you. Once they know that it does, they’ll be more open to the reminder of the service you’re all there to provide.

And then you can resume the work of having an impact.


About the author

Neil Gordon is a communications expert and speaking coach who has been featured in major media outlets, including Forbes and Entrepreneur.

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