Tough Times Need a Tough TeamFaced with unprecedented challenges, your leadership team needs to get aligned and then sound aligned.
Imagine this: your senior managers are hosting virtual meetings. In each one of them, someone asks a question. “What are we doing in response to the pandemic?”
- Manager 1: “We are doing everything we can to keep all of us safe.”
- Manager 2: “I know we all hate these Zoom meetings, but we will be back in the office as soon as possible.”
- Manager 3: “You were sent an email on June 14, outlining our response to the pandemic. I suggest you read that.”
- Manager 4: “What are you concerned about? Let’s talk about what I can do to help.”
Which is the right answer? All of them, and none of them.
None of the answers is wrong. But they are all wrong because they are so different.
People have a fundamental need to feel safe in order to function. Control and predictability create feelings of safety. Four different vague or evasive answers create just the opposite. The costs of this kind of uncertainty: resistance, lost productivity, and an organization even less focused on its business goals.
Faced with unprecedented challenges, your leadership team needs to get aligned and then sound aligned. That’s a tight team.
We have tightened up many executive teams. We don’t tell them what their goals and message should be; we facilitate. Here is the essence of our process:
- Gather your team and ask them four questions.
- What’s the challenge we’re faced with?
- What’s the solution to the challenge?
- What’s the approach we’ll take to execute the solution?
- What’s the result we want?
- For each question, brainstorm a one-word hint: start broad, then narrow down to the top two to three words, and then down to the final one.
- Once the four words are selected, generate facts and examples to use when you deliver the message. Each of the four words needs its own supporting details. Now you have a message frame.
- Bring it all together in a 30-second story – the four words, buttressed by facts or examples.
- Practice telling the story. As you practice, customize it for who you are and whomever you’re addressing. That is, use different examples for a Marketing employee vs. an IT employee. Each executive’s story will be slightly different, based on their communication style, area of expertise, position, and audience.
- Practice it a few more times, imagining different scenarios.
- Use the message frame as the foundation of all communications on this subject.
Let’s try our scenario again. Four Zoom meetings. Four employees with questions. Four responses from leaders.
“What are we doing in response to the pandemic?”
Feel that? It’s peace of mind.
Are you uncomfortable? Good. The work is just startingYou want to be on the right side of this sea-change and tap into the culture of tomorrow. But to do this right, you will have to unlearn some of the behaviors that got you this far.
Getting the Inclusive Culture You Need
No organization remains untouched by these times. The pandemic, the sweeping protests for justice, and 2020’s political tipping point affect every person, every community, and every business. We must respond or be responsible.
You want to lead your organization through this and emerge stronger. You want to be on the right side of this sea-change and tap into the culture of tomorrow. Being one of the thrivers will mean you can attract the talent and customers you need in the future. So you’ll apply all your leadership talents to this challenge, just like all the other challenges you’ve faced.
Wrong. Here’s the first hard truth: To do this right, you will have to UNLEARN some of the behaviors that got you this far.
Act. Don’t wait until you have the perfect plan. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do employees. They will fill in an empty space. If you say and do nothing, or wait too long to plan a response, they will assume you agree with the status quo or don’t care. And by the way, saying, “We are going to do something – stay tuned” is doing something. Just don’t do NOTHING.
Listen. Don’t say your organization celebrates diversity. Ask, “Does our organization celebrate diversity?” Don’t say you are putting health and safety first. Ask, “Are we putting health and safety first?” You might have departments and task forces and employee surveys on this stuff. So what — assume you have a problem and find out what it is.
And this is critical: Make it safe for employees to answer the questions and ask their own. If they think there will be consequences for making their bosses uncomfortable, you will hear nothing, learn nothing, and accomplish nothing. So say it, straight up: “No one will be fired or demoted for speaking up.” Also, give people several channels of communication – live and face-to-face, by anonymous forum, by survey, and via small groups or task forces. Capture what you’re hearing, synthesize it, and then distribute it for feedback. Say, “This is what we’re hearing. Are we getting it right?” Then listen again. It’s a cycle, not a task to be checked off.
Tap into the positives of a grass-roots change.
Wanting to be heard is innate. Forming community is natural. Think about protests and social movements – people march to be seen and heard, and they work on causes to create change together and feel like a part of something big. Simply put, these things activate feel-good chemicals in our brains. Do this for your business, and your employees will feel good about your culture. You will create unity around your organization, your brand, and your mission.
Disrupt. Changing culture is like changing the course of a river. You have to really want it, because it takes dynamite. It’s messy and confusing while it’s happening.
But the ugliness of the disruption is good – it’s a signal to all that you mean business. This is not just about memos and posters and procedures – they’ve seen all of that. This has to look like nothing they’ve seen before. It’s Opposite Day. How do you usually talk to everyone? What words do you use? Where do you meet? How does it feel? Don’t do any of that. Say or do things they don’t expect to set the right tone.
Then use that dynamite. When you hear what’s wrong, go after it. That looks different for every problem and every organization. Use your sounding board to guide you.
Facilitate. As you figure out significant actions to take, let people step up and lead, based on their skills and passions. And then follow; ask what you can do to advise, clear a path, and make things happen. And then lead by example. Show employees you are taking concrete and personal steps toward the culture you are defining together.
Never stop. Don’t declare victory and disband the change team. Assume there is always more to do. Make the effort permanent. Keep listening and learning. Forever. You can celebrate, but celebrate progress, as defined by employees and experts. Celebrate growth, and then keep growing.
So here are your new leadership behaviors, for a new culture:
Finding BalanceI realized I was wasting part of my life by "relaxing" on the weekends. So I made a decision. Every weekend I would do at least one thing I enjoy.
Emerson’s Off-the-Clock series captures the personal thoughts of our consultants.
In December 2012, I flew home from another busy week of consulting. I convinced myself (again) that I should use the weekend to relax. I needed to relax because I had another busy week coming up.
So I sat at home and watched television, ate, slept, and did nothing…all weekend. When I thought about it, I realized this was not unusual. There were many weeks when I pushed myself to the limit to please my company and my clients and then convinced myself to “relax” all weekend so I could perform for them again the next week. As I headed back to the airport, I realized I was wasting part of my life by “relaxing” on the weekends. So I made a decision. Every weekend, going forward, I would do at least one thing I enjoy.
It did not have to take the entire weekend; it might only be half a day…or two hours…or one hour…but every weekend I would do something that brought me pleasure.
On January 1, 2013, I began my quest. I went hiking. I went kayaking. I snowshoed. I spent time on my road bike. I mountain biked. I camped. I went spelunking. I went to film festivals. I visited museums. I attended food festivals. I tried new restaurants. I ate exotic foods. I went to the cinema, opera, ballet and I enjoyed musicals. I ran 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, marathons and even ultra-marathons. I swam. I went birding. I explored small towns and large cities and other countries. I read. I wrote. I learned. For the past 385 consecutive weeks, I have done at least one thing I enjoy every week. Yes, work, family and life continue, but I have been intentional about carving out that time. Sometimes I go on solo adventures. Sometimes I am with family or friends. That’s what’s been fun about it—the experiences can be as varied as I want them to be.
Many have followed me on this journey. Some have decided to try it for themselves. Others have done some variation—instead of every week, they do it once a month. Others have come up with tons of kid-friendly adventures to get the family out and about each week. After following me for a few years, one of my former colleagues remembered how much he enjoyed painting, so he started again. He painted every week. Eventually, he left his job and became a professional artist! Most of us probably won’t go that far but all of us could use a little boost when it comes to remembering the things we enjoy and getting some of those things back into our lives.
This year, we’ve all been impacted by COVID-19. In March, many of us found ourselves sheltering in place. Fortunately, I have a lot of great parks nearby, so I’ve been able to spend even more time running, hiking, biking and birding. I’ve also been doing a lot of backyard birding, creating my own film festivals and other things (like painting “happiness messages” on rocks and later leaving them in parks for others to find). And I’m not alone. During quarantine, lots of people have re-discovered simple pleasures. Many families have dusted off their bikes and gone on family rides or started hiking and exploring their local parks. Folks who haven’t been fishing in years (or who have never been fishing) have been out to their lakes and rivers to have a go at it.
When the shelter-in-place is lifted and things slowly go back to “normal” (or to whatever the “new normal” will be), will people slowly forget about these simple pleasures? Will they forget about these things they’ve been using to fill their days? Will they eventually get back to the hustle and bustle of family and work and work and family? Will we forget we need to do other things that bring pleasure and joy to our lives? I hope not. I hope everyone takes a few lessons from this slower time. I hope we all continue to spend quality time with our families, reconnect with our friends and classmates and former colleagues, and continue to incorporate the fun into our lives. Being a great consultant is important, but being a well-balanced person is even more important.
So work hard, but remember to get up, get out and enjoy your life!
Scale Your Workforce in Tough TimesAt Emerson, we think of talent management holistically -- it helps achieve the business outcomes you want. But how can you streamline the process? Download our latest whitepaper to learn how.
Strong Messages for Tough TimesWhether in the midst of a pandemic or a change in company policy, strategy, or organization—good communication follows these principles.
As change and communication consultants, we emphasize the need for clear and consistent messaging from leaders about any change, big or small.
Inconsistent messaging from leaders only serves to confuse. Our recent COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point. Things are changing from day to day and we’re getting different messages from county, state, and federal officials. We are allowed to go outside to exercise. Does that mean it’s ok to go to a park or the beach? Do we have to avoid passing others on the sidewalk? What’s the safest way to feed our families? Should we shop at a grocery store and cook at home or order takeout? Who should self-quarantine—those with symptoms or anyone who has traveled lately?
In confusing times—whether in the midst of a pandemic or a change in company policy, strategy, or organization—good communication follows the same principles.
People have to hear the same message at least seven times for it to stick. “Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water” or “Our focus for 2020 is reducing costs.” Either one would have to reach individuals over and over, through different channels, to change behavior.
Assume people don’t like to read. Give them the headlines. Use the same words again and again. Offer supporting information, but make sure the essentials are simple. “Stay at home.” “Wash your hands.” “Wear your hard hat.”
And, the bigger the audience, the simpler the message should be.
Ideally, our government leaders would agree on a common, standard message—not one for California, one for Texas, one for San Mateo County, one for San Bernardino County, one for Dallas, one for Houston—make sure all leaders answer the same question in the same way.
At Emerson, we recommend identifying four anchor words to ensure consistency of a message. Agree on the Problem you’re trying to solve, the Solution to the problem, the Approach you’ll take to solve the problem, and the Result you want. Land on one word each to describe the Problem, Solution, Approach, and Result. Those four words are your “message frame.” When speaking or writing about the challenge, everyone should use those four words to recall and tell the story. Use whatever facts and examples make sense to your audience, but stick to those four anchor words.
Appealing to more than one of our five senses helps people retain information. For example, as we hear the speaker saying something in plain terms we understand, we should see the same simple message. If you’ve ever viewed any of the TED talks, the best speakers use simple graphics in the background to illustrate their points. Wouldn’t it be more effective if, every time the President was at the podium, a few bullet points or a clear graphic behind him reinforced his message to the people?
In challenging times, when people are anxious or stressed, clear communication is more important than ever. Use these principles and your employees will thank you for it.
Guiding Your Organization Through Coronavirus FearsThe vast majority of the world will not be affected by coronavirus, but we all feel its presence. The people in your organization are no exception.
The coronavirus is not only infecting people’s bodies, it’s in their heads. The vast majority of the world will not be affected by the virus, now named COVID19, but we all feel its presence. The people in your organization are no exception. The global health threat affects them emotionally, and that means it affects your business.
So what can you possibly do in the face of something so much bigger than your organization? You can make the experience feel familiar, controlled, and successful.
We use the science of the brain to help our clients navigate big challenges. These three principles are key.
- Creating connections between the current experience and other experiences makes people feel it’s familiar. This dampens the brain’s fear responses so people can hear you and engage.
- No one wants to step forward in the dark. Feelings of control disrupt that paralysis and help people use their higher brain functions to solve problems and take positive action.
- Winning and sharing success release “feel good” and “connection” chemicals, which reinforce those positive actions and create the engagement you want.
But seriously, the coronavirus? Yes, you can use these principles to help your people get through this very uncertain time.
How do you make an unprecedented event feel familiar? Well, you tap into past positive experiences.
Was there a big threat to your organization that you handled well? Compare this experience to that by reminding people how you got through it together. “Ten years ago, the H1N1 presented us with similar risks. Here’s how we handled that.” “Remember 2017, when we faced that disruption to our supply chain?” Talk about how dire the situation was, and the progress milestones you hit along the way.
Are there people or processes they are used to? Use those. If employees have a place they go for reliable information, make sure information on the health threat is there. If there’s a leader who delivers consistent and reliable information, make sure that’s the voice they hear. Familiarity turns off the fear response so employees can turn their focus to business as usual.
What? Isn’t an epidemic the very opposite of “controlled?” It is, but there are ways to encourage feelings of control.
One way is to create predictability. Tell employees what will happen, and when. And then deliver. When will you give them updates? Who will deliver them? What preventive measures will they experience? Make sure you speak in plain terms, not medical jargon, so all listeners feel sure they understand your message.
Another way to create control is to give people agency – in other words, let people take some action to help themselves and others. Feeling helpless is the enemy, so give them something to do. Give employees a channel for asking questions — then make sure you answer them! Introduce safety processes, no matter how simple, that employees can act on. For example, you might make it easier for employees to wash their hands properly. You could allow employees to put themselves on a “no fly” list temporarily, opting out of non-essential international travel. You could ask employees to post company updates on progress against the threat in common spaces. You might publish simple safety practices for employees’ families, as well. Meaningful actions, no matter how small, make people feel they are doing something to protect themselves.
What are you, the CDC? How can you successfully fight the coronavirus? You can’t, of course. But you can make the people feel successful at what they want – to be safe from it. Share positive updates, like safety measure implemented. “100% of employees now have access to our weekly update.” “All business travel to Asia has been suspended for the time being.”
And share successes for the world outside your organization. If infection rates drop in a particular country, let them know. If scientists have a target date for a vaccine, make sure it’s out there. Visible successes create a sense that the organization is moving through the crisis and will emerge healthy on the other side.
We’re all in uncharted territory, and we look to our leaders for guidance. You can do more than that – you can make a significant positive difference for your employees and your business by using the science of the brain.
Iowa Caucus: Don’t Blame the AppCompanies we work with might not worry about failing on a world stage, but when they attempt something new, the stakes are high for their employees and leadership.
Lessons from the Iowa Caucus can help your business.
“After 9 p.m., disorder really descended. The app for reporting results wasn’t working. When I’d downloaded it on Jan. 31, the installation instructions had been convoluted: You had to fill out a survey, which then got you a link, and then you had to download a different app, and enter in a code from your email, and then you would get the real app. But we have caucus chairs who need their grandkids to program their DVRs, and the training for the caucus chairs hadn’t included any guidance. The party didn’t really roll out the app so much as drop it on the doorstep.
In our county, only two of the 22 caucus leaders were able to use the app successfully. So across the state, counties just like ours called their results into Des Moines headquarters the old-fashioned way, flooding the phone lines and overwhelming the few volunteers assigned to this job.” – Zach Simonson, Chairman of the Wapello County Democratic Party
“As the smartphone app for reporting the results of the Iowa Democratic caucuses began failing last Monday night, party officials instructed precinct leaders to move to Plan B: calling the results into caucus headquarters, where dozens of volunteers would enter the figures into a secure system.
But when many of those volunteers tried to log on to their computers, they made an unsettling discovery. They needed smartphones to retrieve a code, but they had been told not to bring their phones into the “boiler room” in Des Moines.
As a torrent of results were phoned in…volunteers resorted to passing around a spare iPad to log into the system. Melissa Watson, the state party’s chief financial officer, who was in charge of the boiler room, did not know how to operate a Google spreadsheet application used to input data…
Others, desperate to verify results, began telling some precinct leaders to email photographs of their worksheets — the paper forms used to tally results — to a dedicated email address. But for hours, no one monitored the inbox. When it was finally opened Tuesday morning, there were 700 unread emails waiting, with photos that had been sent sideways; volunteers had to crane their necks to decipher the handwritten forms.”
– How the Iowa Caucuses Became an Epic Fiasco for Democrats, The New York Times
Did you notice anything about these accounts of the Iowa Caucus debacle of 2020? There’s not a lot of focus on the prime suspect: a coding error in the app. Instead, the story is about people — unprepared and poorly skilled — doing their best.
This is exactly the kind of nightmare we help clients avoid.
Companies we work with might not worry about failing on a world stage, but when they attempt something new, the stakes are high for their employees and leadership.
As a change and learning professional, here’s what jumps out at me:
- The process wasn’t clear. Even those in leadership positions didn’t understand the flow of information and tasks required with this new technology. And it seems no one had even considered a “Plan B” work flow, namely falling back to the paper-based system. People tried and failed to follow the process, then they did what smart people do: they found a workaround. They looked at the tools available (paper, screen shots, email) and tried to get to the goal. But the organization wasn’t staffed or skilled for either process: Plan A or Plan B.
- There was no consideration of the people in the roles. The folks who had to perform came to the caucuses with a variety of skills, preferences, and backgrounds. One way of doing things won’t work for a diverse group like that – the smart thing to do is to understand who the people are. If you really know them, you can develop supports that meet them where they are and bring them across that gap of knowledge and skills to a place where they can perform.
- Nobody prepared people to perform. “Once you hear the phrase ‘trouble downloading today,’ it is not the technology,” Jeremy Bird, Obama’s former political strategist said in a Tuesday tweet. “That is a training/planning/organizational problem. Should have had multiple dry runs & zero people should have been downloading anything on caucus night.” You must make the change familiar, in a safe environment, with opportunities to practice, long before the pressure is on. How many volunteers were involved in the testing stage before the app was even finished? Testing is an opportunity to involve end-users early, explain the process with time for feedback, and get volunteers doing successful dry runs before the real thing.
- There was no overall change plan. Any big change – especially something as high-profile and consequential as this one – needs a thoughtful, strategic, tight change management plan. A good change plan includes the right interventions, at the right times, with the right checkpoints and measurements to ensure success…and one our favorite results at Emerson: “no surprises.”
Hindsight is easy, of course. But for us at Emerson it was wide-eyed, head-slapping dismay that none of the basics of change were followed. Next time, Iowa Dems, just give us a call!
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