By Gregg Ward
Founder | Executive Director – The Center for Respectful Leadership
You may remember the 2009 George Clooney dramady “Up In The Air” in which a newly hired “termination” specialist named Natalie, played by the brilliant Anna Kendrick, attempts to fire employees using text and/or videoconference calls. It didn’t go well. As you can imagine, firing people remotely is grossly impersonal and minimizes expressions of genuine empathy, concern and compassion. And it can cause enormous, unintended problems.
And yet, most leaders know that delivering serious, emotionally loaded and important messages is simply part of the job. And the fact is, during times of crisis – like now – it’s vital for us to deliver those messages carefully, compassionately, with empathy and, if possible, in person. Unfortunately, the outbreak of Covid-19 and the daily announcements of country-wide “lockdowns” and admonitions to avoid large groups and engage in social distancing, prohibits face-to-face delivery of communication for the time being.
Nevertheless, clear communication must happen, or panic will set in. And clear communication requires transparency – especially about serious matters. At the Center for Respectful Leadership, this is the central focus of the Respectful Leader practice we call: RespectfulDo #3 “Be Respectworthy.” In essence, Respectful leaders know that one of the key approaches to winning and keeping the respect and loyalty of their employees is to be as transparent, sincere, open, and as honest with them as possible, especially in times of crises.
Of course, this takes planning; you do not want to wing this stuff. And you need to choose your delivery medium carefully. If IT, Security, Legal, HR and Marketing are comfortable with it, then we believe the best virtual communication is through a live, videoconference platform that everyone can log into and use the chat function during Q&A. This is because people are visual and are reassured when they see their leaders keeping cool heads during times of crisis. A second viable option is a live phone conference call, although Q&A is harder to navigate.
Regardless of the medium you plan to use, you must fully script out what you’re going to say in advance. No bullet points, no buzzword phrases. And you need to practice it until you can say it authentically and comfortably.
By the way, before you deliver it, you should run it by the other leaders in your organization to ensure everyone’s relatively comfortable and aligned with your message. (They may push back on certain items, and you should listen to their concerns. But if you’re the boss, of course you’ll have final say).
Your important message script should include…
1.Greeting. A “good morning / good evening,“ and a “Thank You” to all for their attention.
2. Introduce Yourself. An introduction to yourself and your role: “I am (note: saying ‘I am,’ is preferred to “my name is…”) XYZ, and I’m (Your Title). My primary role in this organization is XYZ.” Introduce any other leader who is there with you and/or who has had a direct role in the action you’re taking.
3. Summary of Action You’re Taking. A clear announcement of what you/your organization are about to do, i.e. “Today, we’re announcing closures, layoffs, suspensions, etc.”
4. Why We’re Doing This. A clear explanation as to why this action is necessary now, i.e. “due to the lockdown requirements of the government, etc.”
5. We Take This Seriously / We’ve Thought It Through Carefully. “Please know that we take this action very seriously and have thought it through very carefully.”
6. Compassion / Understanding of the Impact and Mitigation Strategy. “We know this action will impact you and may cause you significant hardship and anxiety. Please know that we are taking the following specific actions in order to minimize the impact on you…” Specifically outline the concrete things your organization is doing to mitigate the negative impact of this action and how these things will help individuals.
7. Timeframe. An estimate as to how long this change/decision is likely to last/be in force, or (if you don’t know) a statement that expresses “We’ll contact you immediately when the situation changes.”
8. What I’m Doing Personally. Because your employees expect you to sacrifice too, you need to tell them what you (as the leader) personally intend to do during this crisis to help alleviate their suffering and hardship, i.e. contact employees individually and regularly by phone to check in on them; take no salary for the time being, etc.
9. Uplifting Story. Tell a brief, true story about what one employee, or a group of employees are doing to help ease burdens on their fellow employees. Add that “These are the kinds of folks that make our organization so great.”
10. Final Thank You / Personal Request / Timeline. A final “thank you” for listening and a personal and gentle admonition to be helpful and kind to one another, to ask for help from colleagues, family and friends and not to hesitate to reach out to you (and the other leaders) at the organization for more information and/or help. Add in a specific date and time when you will next communicate with them.
One last thing, remember: it’s not what you say, but how you say it. You could follow the script outline above exactly, but if you don’t deliver it sincerely, with compassion and humility from your heart, your employees will infer that you don’t care about them, and George and Anna’s troubles in the movie will be nothing in comparison to yours.
Stay in touch with The Center for Respectful Leadership for more information on respectful leadership best practices.