Companies are having more difficult conversations with their employees than ever before. Layoffs are skyrocketing and salaries are shrinking or remaining stagnant. Managers today are faced with some of the most difficult conversations in living memory: recalibrating employee expectations; motivating higher productivity without the incentive of higher rewards, and delivering terrible news to large numbers of high and low performers alike. Handling these conversations well has never been more important. Few organizations can handle any decrease in morale, productivity, or organizational reputation. Even fewer can handle the cost or inefficiency of conflict resulting from poor communication.
To survive in the current market, organizations need to invest appropriate time in dealing with difficult conversations, implement a unified approach, and make strategic use of skilled Communication Consultants.
Three Key Steps to Down Market Success
Most managers aren’t prepared to optimize the difficult conversations of today’s market. It’s not their fault. In addition to the unique intensity of the current business environment, many managers reached their positions through technical expertise rather than communication skills. Even managers with impressive interpersonal skills are understandably focused right now on their clients, their products, and keeping the company afloat. With respect to handling difficult conversations in a down market, organizations must focus on three key steps to success.
1. Invest the Time: At the individual level, managers are under tremendous pressure to produce results. Significant down markets quickly generate a crisis mentality that can produce a heads-down, short-term goal orientation that deprioritizes effective communication and attention to interpersonal dynamics. Moreover, most managers find difficult conversations unpleasant. As a result, they either rush through challenging conversations or look for excuses to put them off entirely. Down market survival depends on each manager investing the appropriate amount of time to prepare and conduct difficult conversations effectively.
2. Implement a Unified Approach: At the organizational level, setting expectations and delivering bad news should be planned strategically. Imagine if one manager tries to protect his team by telling them to expect a few isolated layoffs while his colleague, hoping to get the worst out of the way quickly, tells her team that the company will lose 40% of its workforce. The conversation between teams over lunch will not go well. Similar confusion and tension results when one manager spends an hour with each employee, listening to their concerns and gathering feedback, while another tries to be efficient by sending a five-line email to his or her direct reports. Managers need guidance on a unified approach regarding the substantive message to be delivered and the preferred process used to deliver it.
3. Get Help: Just when management needs the most help with targeted concrete advice on how to handle difficult conversations, many organizations freeze the budget on consulting and training. The strategic use of a well-chosen Communication Consultant can easily pay for itself in a down market.
What a Communication Consultant Must Provide
Communication Consultants must be able to address the full range of challenging internal conversations faced by management in down markets:
- Firing individuals
- Mass layoffs
- Bonus and raise freezes
- Reductions of resources.
Communication Consultants must also have the ability to help key personnel handle the full range of challenging external conversations typical of down markets:
- Fee increases
- Refusing to give discounts
- Disclosing poor performance
- Reduction in services
- Dealing with blame.
Through efficient training and coaching, Communication Consultants must be able to raise awareness of common dynamics in these conversations, introduce systematic frameworks and tools for preparation and conduct, and provide extensive skills practice with concrete applications to current real-world difficult conversations.
How to Choose a Communication Consultant
In the current market, no organization can afford to take employees out of the field for time that won’t produce sufficient value to outweigh the opportunity costs. The following factors when hiring a Communication Consultant. .
1. Hire a firm, not an individual: Boutique communication firms can choose the right team to train employees. Hire an organization that can meet your needs geographically and can plan trainings around your schedule.
2. Hire experience: Does the Communication Consultant have sufficient industry knowledge to grasp problems quickly and craft complex solutions? Does he or she have sophisticated conflict management, change management, and negotiation expertise? Hire a company with experienced consultants with impeccable credentials.
3. Ensure a cultural and personal fit: The Communication Consultant should spend an efficient amount of time conducting diagnostic work with your team to understand their unique challenges. If the Consultants don’t understand your company or its culture, they won’t succeed.
Difficult conversations will never become easy. They can, however, become manageable. Improving these discussions will differentiate companies from their competitors in attracting and keeping top talent, will save the company time and money, and can mean the difference between success and failure in a tight economy.
Authors: David G. Seibel is Co-Founder and President of the Boston-based global training firms Insight Partners and Insight Collaborative. Emily Epstein is a Senior Associate at the same organizations.