Leaders typically address their teams with the goals of either reaffirming behaviors or effecting behavior changes. This can be difficult on an average day considering people are typically more motivated to support their own ideas, beliefs and behaviors than they are to listen to business leaders explain why they should change. Before employees commit to proposed changes, they must feel like their personal interests will be served, their fears will be addressed and they can protect their self-image.
These principles are especially true in times of stress, when people are often more motivated by fear of loss than the allure of potential gain. They may imagine how good the gain would feel, but they know exactly how bad the loss will hurt. During times of stress this fear can cause people to become more defensive, cling harder to what they are comfortable with, distrust perceived outsiders and look for information that appears to confirm their worst fears while ignoring information that could guide them toward a positive outcome.
Leaders can benefit from asking themselves a specific question prior to addressing their teams: What do I want my team walking away thinking, feeling and doing? The answer to this question should guide their communication. In his book, “Care to Dare,” George Kohlrieser illustrated how the cycle of emotions people face when they are confronted with change exactly mirrors the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle. He discussed how conflict often arises between executive leadership and employees during stressful times because leaders typically complete the change cycle before they ask their employees to enter it — and they expect their employees to react as if they have completed the cycle. When executive leaders consider what to communicate to their management teams and/or employees during times of crisis, they often start by asking themselves questions such as:
- Why should they accept this?
- Why should they agree to this?
- Why should they do this?
- Why should they understand this?
Each of these questions is unproductive because leaders typically arrive at answers that are based on their perspectives after completing the change cycle. The answers to these questions rarely address the perspectives of their managers and employees who are in an entirely different place emotionally, with largely different personal priorities.
The best way to account for these differing perspectives and priorities is to ask the opposite questions:
- Why shouldn’t they accept this?
- Why shouldn’t they agree to this?
- Why shouldn’t they do this?
- Why shouldn’t they understand this?
These questions aren’t designed to be negative, fatalistic or assume failure. They are designed to get leaders as close as possible to understanding their managers’ and employees’ true perspectives. This enhanced understanding allows leaders to craft more impactful messages, increase their perceived trustworthiness and generate less resistance. Certified forensic interviewers know that before you can influence people to commit to changing how they think, feel or behave, you have to consider why they won’t want to.
Facilitators and instructional designers will often build programs around the likelihood that their program participants will ask themselves questions such as: “What’s in it for me?” “Why would I want to do this?” and “Why should I believe you?” Employees will often ask themselves similar questions when they are listening to leaders communicate during stressful times. In addition to evolving their strategic preparation questions, leaders can increase their influence under stress by incorporating the following approaches:
State the why before the what. Three unaffiliated research studies have demonstrated that people are capable of categorizing others, and judging their trustworthiness, in as little as 100 milliseconds. People usually spend the rest of the conversation actively looking for information that confirms these snap judgements. When leaders start by telling people what has to happen, they allow their employees to assume their intentions and motivations and begin constructing defensive responses. When leaders begin their messages by illustrating their greater goals, desired outcomes, and understanding of their employees’ perspectives and motivations, they create the opportunity for their employees to buy in before hearing what must happen next.
Avoid communicating like a parent. Most adults don’t appreciate being spoken to like children and most leaders don’t intend to talk down to their employees and managers. However, many accidentally do. Any time leaders make statements such as, “What I need you to do is … ,” “What you need to do for me is … ,” “What would be best for you is …” or “What you don’t understand is … ,” they take on a parental persona. This approach often generates unanticipated defensive reactions from their employees. These consequences can be avoided by rephrasing the messages such as, “What we need to do next is … ,” “The next step in the process is … ,” “The next task on the project plan is …” or “What we need to do a better job of making sure everyone understands is … .”
Shine a light at the end of the tunnel. Leaders spend so much time considering worst-case scenarios it becomes easy for them to communicate doom and gloom, even when they are trying to avoid it. While it would be dishonest to avoid acknowledging how bad a situation may be, it can be equally harmful to dwell on it. Everyone knows our current situation is terrible. Employees like knowing that their leaders are thinking past the crisis to what may come next. Taking the opportunity to share where the company may be able to pivot, regroup or reinvent itself at the end of the crisis can serve to maintain morale when all appears temporarily lost.
Use experts and stories as reinforcements. It’s not uncommon for groups of employees to combat uncertainty by making assumptions, drawing conclusions and spreading rumors. Leaders can increase their credibility by sharing data, opinions and approaches from universally recognized experts. Leaders can also increase their credibility by sharing impactful stories of how they have previously overcome challenges, or how other organizations have overcome similar challenges. These approaches allow employees to develop the perception that their leaders are well-educated, experienced and have access to the resources necessary to get through the crisis at hand. The stories take this one step further by illustrating how organizations have survived before and encouraging employees to believe their organization will survive as well.
Illustrate how the entire organization is already making strides toward a better future. Like going to the gym, learning a new language or changing your diet, the first step is always the hardest. When employees feel like the organization has to start over, find a totally new way forward or completely reinvent itself to survive, the process may feel daunting and demotivating. Leaders who take the time to illustrate how the organization, as well as the managers and employees, have already taken actions that started the transition process can short-circuit the initial resistance and jump-start the recovery process.
Crisis creates interesting opportunities for leaders to inspire trust and drive organizational change. The barriers are higher, but the potential rewards are greater. Once leaders clearly establish what their organization needs to do to survive and determine what their managers and employees need to think, feel and do to bring their strategy to life, they can employ subtle evolutions in their communication process to influence their team in ways they never have before.