Monday, January 19, 2009

Leadership 101: Communicate Bad News And Big Changes In Person

Twice I've worked for people who surprised me with personnel changes via PowerPoint slides shown on the wall at staff meetings. The first time I learned three people who worked for me now worked for our new practice manager. The second time I learned a former peer had been promoted to a position managing me and two other peers.

The first example was one of the final straws causing me to leave a badly led company that was sinking. The second example, while it happened to be a case of promoting the right guy to the right job, came as a slap in the face because the CEO of the company who decided on the change didn't have enough respect for me and my peers to let us know in private we'd be getting a new boss. The second example was even more galling because a peer and good friend had a demotion from "Manager" to "Lead" and found out about it on the same slide.

This year several friends of mine got notice a week before Christmas that their benefits were being substantially cut -- a week after a company meeting had the CEO announcing the company's outlook was rosy. Said notice came over e-mail.

The same company laid off another friend via a phone call instead of face-to-face. My friend had been recognized as "Consultant of the Year" two years before and had been highly regarded at clients.

Bad news in companies happens. Big changes happen. Every reasonable employee understands that there are economic cycles, and sometimes hard choices have to be made. Every reasonable employee understands that reorganizations are a necessary part of making sure you've got the right people in the right slots to ensure the company's success.

If you even pretend to want to be a leader, then you're going to have to make hard decisions at some point. You owe your team the respect of sharing those changes in person, not via e-mail or over the phone. Sometimes this can't scale: incredibly poor leadership at the auto companies and UAW is forcing nasty changes down the entire supply chain. CEOs from all the auto companies and the UAW union president can't hit up each and every worker in person.

Still, there are ways to ensure that big impact news is handed out in as respectful manner as possible. Such communications absolutely must be in person, regardless of the effort it costs you as a leader. Shy away from these tough conversations and you're in Fail Whale mode. Not only will you be losing respect (remember the thing about getting respect by giving respect?), you'll do immense damage to morale across the organization.

I can't stress that morale issue enough. Rumors fly rampant and quickly spiral out of control when bad news comes from a phone call or an e-mail. There's no face to the message, there's no context to it, there's no chance to ask questions. Get in front of the message, get in front of the audience, get in front of the recipient. Share the changes or bad news, and at least make an effort to answer a few questions.

Bitter pills are never easy to swallow, but giving that news in person is the only way to lead.

Update: Find links to this series of posts here.

1 comment:

Tim said...

A few years back I was at a large consulting firm that may or may not be based in Detroit, MI and we had a lot of bad news communicated over a short period of time, and never in person.

The first round of bad news was layoffs delivered via certified mail. You got no letter (a really good thing), the good letter (you have 30 days to become billable), or the bad letter (you're seeking new employment). They all arrived on the same day, some folks were already at work when their layoff letters arrived.

The next round of bad news was delivered via email. Everybody was getting a 10% pay cut, and if you'd been on the bench for 30 days or more, you were getting a 50% pay cut until you were billable again. Both paycuts were effective the first of the next month...we got the emails on the 29th.

The third round of bad news, about 4 months after the previous round, was this time delivered face to face, but it was again a pay cut. The best you could do was a 0% pay cut.

Between rounds 2 and 3 of crushing news my job search went into full swing, and some guy named Brian Prince called me. That has worked out well for me, but I'll never forget how that old company treated me near the end of my tenure there.

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