by Steve Adubato, PhD
One of a leader’s toughest jobs is to communicate a message that people don’t want to hear. That’s what New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine did in his recent State of the State speech and on his 21 county town meeting tour that is now in full swing. The governor, like any responsible leader, had to communicate clearly the nature of the problem and propose a concrete plan to address it. This is true whether you are a governor, a CEO, department manager or a school superintendent. Your job is still to tell a skeptical audience the “bad news” that things have to change—to expect pain and sacrifice. (Think significant toll hikes for the foreseeable future.)
Simply put, sometimes a leader has to take on the really tough challenges, whether it is a governor figuring out how to deal with a $30 bullion dollar debt or a CEO telling employees there will be massive layoffs. It is easy being a leader in good times, when sales are up and the organization is expanding by hiring new employees and branching into new territories. Yet, the true test of a leader is how he or she handles adversity.
Regardless of the circumstance, here are some communication tips and tools for any leader who must tell his audience what his audience would rather not hear.
--State the problem in clear, unambiguous language; “We are nearly bankrupt and if we don’t do something about it immediately, the pain is only going to get worse.” Avoid using language like; “I think this is a serious situation that we should probably address in the near future.” Such qualifiers as “I think” and “probably” communicate doubt on your part and often result in confusion in the minds of those on the receiving end.
--Go into detail about the problem, but don’t inundate people with too much information. For example, Governor Corzine’s first town meeting in Livingston kicked off with a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation. I’m sure it was helpful to many; however, a leader must ask how much information is too much? At what point do you communicate so much detail that you lose the ability to engage your audience in a spirited conversation? A communication rule of thumb to consider—If you are doing a Q&A, your introductory remarks should be no longer than 15 or 20 minutes. Beyond that, no matter how great a communicator you may be, you run the risk of losing your audience.
--Once a leader communicates his plan of action, it is essential to be totally accessible and open when selling it. Remember, people are uncomfortable with what you are telling them and one thing that could make them feel any better is knowing that they have a direct line of communication with you. Too many CEOs and organizational leaders attempt to shield themselves from tough questions and challenging situations. That’s why open and unscripted forums with employees and key shareholders is so productive.
--Create a sense of urgency without panic. Telling people “we are in big trouble and this is how we are going to get out of it” is one thing; but communicating that the sky is falling and there is nothing we can do to stop it is another. There is a fine line between communicating urgency and panic and the great leaders know how to walk it.
--Be firm but flexible. A leader should communicate his or her plan with conviction and passion while still being open to recommendations and revisions. When challenged, great leaders say things like; “That’s an excellent idea that I hadn’t considered. It’s something we should try to incorporate into our plan.” That doesn’t make you weaker; in fact it makes you stronger by showing you are confident enough to listen and admit you don’t have all the answers.