How to Communicate Organizational Uncertainty
Sending the Right Message to Reduce Stress
Do you want the good news or the bad news?
First, the bad. People dislike uncertainty, so, in these times of accelerated change, it can be hard to know how to keep them informed. But one thing seems certain – "no news" is definitely not "good news."
If you work in a fast-changing industry and you talk to your team about possibilities, some members will interpret what you say as promises for the future, and they'll hold you to account if circumstances change. However, if you keep quiet until you are certain about an outcome, they may feel that they are being kept in the dark and rely on the rumor mill for (mis)information.
Worse still, if you delay giving information for too long, people will assume that you are uninformed or directionless, because you appear to be reacting to pressure at the last minute, rather than taking a proactive stance.
Communications consultants Phillip Clampitt, Robert DeKoch and Thomas Cashman use the term "the terrible triad" for the situation where staff think that the company's management is "evil for withholding information, stupid because it didn't know what was happening, or helpless, since it didn't react until the last minute."
The good news is that they've worked out how to prevent this "toxic climate" from taking hold. This article discusses their recommendations, and looks at how you can build a positive culture of communication in your organization, one that turns uncertainty into a driver for success.
Types of Communication Strategy
In their article, "A Strategy for Communicating About Uncertainty," Clampitt, DeKoch and Cashman identify five communication strategies that organizations typically use:
- Withhold and Uphold: Company leaders share information only when necessary, because they do not trust team members to understand the big picture. The secrecy involved in this approach can generate rumors, bitterness and even contempt.
- Spray and Pray: Managers shower their teams with information, but leave members to identify the important messages. Unfortunately, people tend either to focus on the parts of the message that suit their own personal agenda, or simply feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information they are receiving.
- Tell and Sell: Leaders limit the information they share to what they believe are the key issues, then sell their approach to the rest of the organization. This strategy is typically a one-way conversation that puts teams in the passive role of information receivers. Feedback is neither desired nor sought, leaving team members feeling cynical about the messages they receive.
- Underscore and Explore: Leaders focus on core issues linked to organizational success, but they also listen to people's reactions to those issues. This two-way conversation helps managers recognize and correct misunderstandings, and address obstacles they may not have considered.
- Identify and Reply: This strategy focuses on team members' concerns. They set the agenda and managers address their concerns, and respond to rumors and information leaks. Although this strategy emphasizes listening to people, managers need to realize that employees may not be in a position to identify what the critical issues are.
The Terrible Triad
The "terrible triad" can arise when companies rely on a combination of "Spray and Pray" and "Withhold and Uphold" strategies. They bombard their people with information, without first identifying what their core message should be, and then avoid talking about issues like company restructuring or possible future layoffs until they absolutely have to, because they don't want to upset people unnecessarily.
This creates a contradictory situation, in which leaders give people access to all the information they could possibly want while simultaneously avoiding the issues that they care about the most. This breeds an atmosphere of discontent and distrust, ultimately leading to the "terrible triad."
Once established, this can be very persistent, because, fundamentally, both the organization's leaders and its staff fail to acknowledge that they are operating in an uncertain environment. Leaders are unwilling to admit that there are many things that they do not know. Teams need to accept that, in a rapidly changing climate, there are many things that cannot be known for certain.
The most effective way to deal with this is to adopt an "Underscore and Explore" strategy, to communicate the core message that people need to embrace the uncertainty that's affecting the organizational goals.
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