The Toughest Communication of All


A client and friend recently related the story of a 50+-year-old man crying in her office after she was forced to lay him off because of economic conditions.  For a period during my past corporate life I was alternately known as ‘the closer’ or the ‘angel of death’ as I helped shutter facilities in a major downsizing.  That task simply sucked. But, like everything else, there are ways of doing it respectfully and better.  Read on. 


Layoffs, plant closings, and the shuttering of retail outlets are never easy events to communicate to those hardest hit by the economic downturn. But if organizations effectively demonstrate sincere concern for, solid commitment to, and strong action on behalf of the most precious resources they’ve got – people — they can limit reputational damage and lay the groundwork for better days ahead.


As giants like G.M., Chrysler, Caterpillar, Microsoft, Home Depot, and Starbucks headline the list of companies that have already laid off hundreds of thousands of workers in 2009 alone, all eyes are firmly fixed on the steps companies are taking to reassure a beleaguered workforce. If you’re faced with this tough choice, keep the following in mind:


First, you need to communicate in real time with all of your employees, especially those that are retained. Employees need to know why actions are being taken, the chances that additional layoffs could take place in the future, and what management hopes to gain. In business many employees are also shareholders so they’ll have concerns about the impact on their holdings.


Second, companies that are closing plants or offices need to be good neighbors to their host communities. There are at least two reasons why it is vitally important to keep community leaders in the loop on everything that’s happening:


  • If a company maintains another office or plant nearby or keeps one open while laying off workers, its executives need to maintain a good relationship with local decision-makers who can repeal tax breaks, revisit zoning decisions and building easements, or take other punitive measures if public support for the company wanes; and
  • If a company pulls out of a community entirely, stories about how it handled a plant closing in one state will have consequences years later when it tries to open a facility in a new, different state. And the Internet makes this information readily available forever.

And third, organizations should be seen as being in control. When you simply declare, “we have no choice but lay people off,” you look helpless. By contrast, a message that conveys empathetic control could be: “We’ve explored every option and this is the most reasonable course of action under the circumstances. We’re going to provide severance. We’re going to provide training. We are going to do whatever we can to soften the landing for those who are our family.”

Carrying out layoffs or closing an office the right way will help morale, keep relations with communities and constituencies strong, and make it easier to rebound when better times return.



How Does Your Email Sound? 

This is edited from a David Silverman BLOG in Harvard Business Review.  It was written specifically about employee communication but there are lessons here about email in general.

I’ve felt rising anger every time one of my bosses sent an email beginning with, “Please provide the revised presentation…”

It was the “please” that drove me over the edge. And while I didn’t fire off a petulant four-paragraph response, I did seethe quietly. And, more importantly, I didn’t feel very much like “providing the revised presentation.”

Studies have shown that readers add (or invent) emotional bias that is often counter to your intent as the sender.

In this case, all of the niceties you thought you were writing end up sounding very different in the mind of the receiver.

The form of communication itself (emailing your employees) can be interpreted as, “Just so you know, I’m documenting your incompetence.”  When working with the public (real people) you need to find as balance between business-like and human. 

Here are some thoughts:

1.    Call. If your goal is to check on a task and give the employee a chance to respond with questions, or to brief a constituent and build some trust — a call could accomplish this while allowing both of you to hear each other’s tone of voice.


2.    Be conversational in your email. Write the way you might actually talk.  Again, this may not be appropriate for formal business communication but not all situations really require formal business communication.   


3.    Use the passive voice. It doesn’t necessarily make for great writing, but it can help you avoid sounding accusatory.   

It may be helpful to you to read your email out loud before you send it.  How does it sound to you?  How will it sound in your receivers head when they read it and hear your voice in the words? 

Even the simplest emails need to be revised with care. It takes time and thought to ensure you don’t give the wrong emotional cues.



Bullies in the Bosses Office

Edited from the Financial Times

If waterboarding is an “enhanced interrogation technique”, that probably make bullying an enhanced management technique.

Of course bullying is in the eye of the victim and needless to say, some bosses will have no time at all for a discussion on the subject.  But some people have argued bullying may have been a factor to the global financial crisis we’re in.  Clearly, something went wrong with the culture of certain organizations and it’s worth asking if bullying was part of the problem.

Take the case of Dick Fuld, the former chief executive of Lehman Brothers. He was, in the words of one well-placed former colleague, “almost unbearably intense”. He did not have to bully people. Senior managers knew what was wanted and what would happen if they didn’t perform.

He certainly got everyone’s attention when he made his feelings known. At a conference for Lehman’s managing directors in London last spring, he declared: “When I find a short seller [Lehman’s stock was under attack], I want to tear his heart out and eat it before his eyes while he’s still alive.”

For some reason, senior colleagues were reluctant to bring Fuld bad news – until it was too late.

Fred Goodwin, the former chief executive at Royal Bank of Scotland would quiz senior managers during his daily 9.30am meetings and usually question their competence. He reduced senior executives to tears.

You can spot the big paradox at the heart of this argument. These two CEOs were successful, brilliant men. They got to the top and stayed there for a long time. For many years, their businesses were highly successful too.

But you can only drive a vehicle flat out for so long before something it breaks. The best leaders know when to take their foot off the gas and allow for a change of pace.

New research on change management, carried out by Buck Consultants, confirms that, where leaders have simply announced changes to staff, they achieved only a modest rate of success. But those that invited employee feedback and had proper two-way communication with staff did much better.

 Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch shocked people recently when he said, “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world.”

Welch was a formidable, even terrifying boss.  One former GE executive confessed that one of his boss’s attacks “caused me to soil my pants”.

Now Welch says: “Any fool can just deliver in the short term by squeezing, squeezing, squeezing.”

Notice that we only ever get to hear these management epiphanies, the expressions of regret, sometime after the stellar business career is over?

Every organization is made up mainly of ordinary people and most will have their share of racists, sociopaths and bullies. That’s life. There may not be much we can do about that. But, if the CEO’s corner office is inhabited by a bully who cannot or will not be faced down, that place has a serious problem, culturally and operationally. And when it all ends in tears, it won’t just be those being shed by the bullied victims.



Just Say ‘Hi’

Much of the work that we do is managing and teaching communications and public involvement for complex science and engineering.  Scientists and engineers can be really uncomfortable in dealing with the public – especially with controversial topics, and we help these experts get good at those situations.  People who gravitate to the sciences and technical professions are usually exceptionally smart but not always social butterflies. 

This edited story from Forbes has some applicable tips.           

Bob Goodyear is a wallflower. A technical product manager for a software-security firm, he speaks to large groups of colleagues and clients. While podiums give him strength, he clams up at business social functions, parking in a corner far from the action, sipping his drink and silently taking in the room.

“I was always fine making a presentation in front of a crowd, but when I tried to mingle afterward, it felt like someone was sticking their hand down into my stomach and tying it in a knot,” says Goodyear, 53.

Last September, on a business trip to Australia, Goodyear decided to get over his fear of making the first move at a business after-event.

“I researched all the companies that would be represented at this event so that when I saw the company names on the guest’s name tags, I had a piece of information about their firm to use as a conversation starter,” he says.

He also manages his emotions by putting a time limit on how long he feels he has to mingle. “I tell myself, ‘Bob, there’s nothing you can’t do for 30 minutes.’ “

Most people have some level of social anxiety, especially when it comes to meeting new people. Fear of embarrassment and rejection kills the urge to meet a new business partner, sales prospect or friend. Making the first move can bring on everything from tense muscles to a pounding heart.

Mark Goulston is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based psychologist who has battled his own debilitating shyness. At the next party he and his wife attended, Goulston set a goal for himself: “to meet three new people and have them be glad to have met me.” Twenty-six years later, Goulston, 61, writes and lectures about overcoming anxiety and guides patients through the process.

Dr. Goulston has another strategy he calls the “FTD delivery.” Hook strangers by asking how they feel, what they think or what they have done or would do about a given topic. Focusing on them is a form of generosity–not off-putting aggression.


Yet another trick is the self-induced head-fake. Before approaching someone, look for physical characteristics that remind you of a close friend or relative, suggests Dr. David Barlow at Boston University. Maybe the person’s hair is like your mother’s, maybe he smiles like your best friend. Focus on the similarities, and you can convince yourself, if only for the moment, that you are comfortable with a complete stranger.

Although this article refers to business situations, developing relationships and social lines of communications at public gatherings requires similar skills.  Experts standing in a corner or only talking among themselves appear arrogant and standoffish, and that’s usually the worst possible time.  Good communication is a necessary and learned skill.      



Great training

The IAP2 Certificate course – some of the best basic public involvement and consensus training on the planet – now qualifies for AICP CM credits.  (If you’re an American Planning Association member you know that this is a very good thing.) We have classes coming up this fall. 

We’re also introducing a new two-day Outrage Management for Public Involvement class, created with Dr. Peter Sandman, a global authority on risk communication.

 Call (602-266-5556) or e-mail if you’d like to learn more.

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