The Absence of Light


(The importance of communication in times of uncertainty or change)

There have been three occasions in the past year where I have had a discussion with someone whose team has been going through a change process, or considerable uncertainty about future arrangements at work.  On each occasion I have asked how their team has been travelling and what they are doing about communication.  Each time I have found they have not spoken to their team for some time, because they have no new information.  When I have pressed the question about how the team is travelling they have responded along the lines of “I think they’re ok” or “They are anxious but I can’t say anything to them because I don’t know anything new”.

Facing prolonged uncertainty can be a very difficult situation for teams. I am often reminded of a piece of Spike Milligan’s verse titled ‘Bump’:

“Things that go ‘bump’ in the night
Should not really give one a fright.
It’s the hole in each ear
That lets in the fear,
That, and the absence of light! “

Teams can be like that, in the absence of light or communication about what is happening.  When there is little or no communication, in times of change or uncertainty, people inevitably let the space between the ears run riot and resort to imagining what is going on, usually worse case scenarios or perceived agendas.  Teams also start to disengage to their own detriment.

I once managed a branch which was going through a market testing process which ran for 12 months.  During that time there was no certainty about the outcome, no recruitment and no promotions allowed.  Team members felt undervalued and feared for their jobs.

Throughout that 12 months I often was unable to tell the team anything new.  The process was proceeding glacially and I was not always privy to the commercially sensitive considerations of the market testing team. Nevertheless, I met, usually informally, with the whole team at least weekly to share with them any new information and at times simply to say that I had no new information.  The importance of these meetings was immeasurable.  They gave people new information when it was available and the opportunity to ask questions or voice concerns so we could jointly discuss them. Even when there was no new information and no questions the meetings had the great advantage of showing empathy and maintaining relatedness with the team.

The other thing I constantly did was to encourage the team to deliver high quality, professional services despite the sense of adversity.

There were important lessons learned through that time:

–           there is no such thing as too much communication in a time of change or uncertainty, it doesn’t need to take a lot of time, its best done informally and in person – people will thereby know you respect them and are mindful of their concerns;

–           keep communicating to quash the rumour mill that will run riot in the absence of you shedding light on what’s going on;

–           real communication is two way – listen to the teams concerns and questions and answer them when you can and always thoughtfully, thereby demonstrating understanding of their concerns.

–           keep to the facts, offering false hope will damage credibility and is ultimately cruel;

–           communication needs to be consistent, don’t flip flop;

–           don’t make things up for the sake of saying something – if you don’t know the answer to questions be brave and honest enough to say so – leaders lose credibility if they give incorrect answers or say things which later can be seen as blatantly unfounded;

–           you may not be able to give certainty as to the outcome of the journey, at each step on the way, but you can demonstrate empathy and relatedness; and

–           through the communication, do what you can to engender a sense of pride and professionalism, in continuing to deliver a high level of service in the face of uncertainty and adversity.

Oh yes, the outcome of that market testing process?  Most team members stayed through the entire process, although a small number moved on.  The final decision by the department was to retain the service in-house.  That decision was partly because the in-house arrangement was broadly competitive on cost grounds.  Most importantly, the decision rested on the high quality service the team had delivered throughout the market testing process.

Photo: Skydie/ 

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