Transparency makes credible – the need for honest leadership

It is a classic starting situation: A general manager, a plant manager, a divisional manager is informed that significant redundancies are imminent in his area, that a site is to be closed or an entire business unit sold. There may have been a hunch, and yet it is always shocking. The person in charge experiences what he will have to communicate to the employees in the near future. And he/she very quickly feels that he/she feels left alone and that he/she only receives reliable information in slices. The situation is confusing and will remain so for quite some time. It is the first scene in a process that now follows, in which every scene has to be rethought and redesigned again and again.

SYNNECTA has been supporting companies and responsible managers for many years in the design of such processes, which focus on communication. It is a different kind of communication – it requires a much higher degree of transparency, honesty and credibility than standard communications and it cannot be delegated. The communication cascades are already problematic in normal times, in crisis communication they are dangerous – the uncontrollable infectious rumor bags are created.

Our affected manager has a first task – he/she must form a team, a management team, which is able to deal sensitively with the situation from their own concern and is prepared to show a high level of presence throughout the entire process. We know the closure process from managers who like to visit the headquarters in such times. The management team with clear knowledge of the task and an honest willingness to go down this path with all employees is the backbone of the process. It is the time when the local managers, the micro-politics learned in seminars and their own tactical behaviour have to leave behind. Fetiye Sisko, who has supported many companies in these phases, says that in the beginning, support always involves developing a common attitude, which makes it clear that the focus is always on all the people concerned.

The people entrusted with communication are too often still young employees, without their own network, with little experience and little influence on content. Their commitment is often remarkable and yet they need support. Because crisis communication has a few special features. Again and again we experience phases of confusion, anger and rage when discrepancies become visible on the various communication channels. In particular, synchronised external and internal communication is required – any discrepancies spread by the press, social media, etc. must be included in internal communication. This is the only way to prevent irritations from the outside to the inside and to avoid strong emotional reactions. Differences in communication create mood and the situation is unstable.

The lively Q&A is an important component in successful crisis communication – every question stands for a need and a necessity, every question must be answered. And if it cannot be answered in the status of the process, exactly this must be said and justified. This is the only way to actively shape the mood part of a crisis and, as experience shows, to prevent the emotional substitutes such as actions of sabotage, refusal to work, etc. This also makes it clear that crisis communication is an iterative process; none of them proceeds in the way that very clever people, who are far away from what is happening, have imagined in advance.

As we have already said, delegation to a communication cascade is not helpful – it creates differences in communication and is no longer controllable by the responsible management team. Therefore it is essential for us to communicate with everyone at the same time as often as possible. Dialogue is already important in a normal situation, here it becomes decisive. It is one of the aims of crisis communication to reduce rumours, and for this to happen, joint communication experiences are needed. They are emotional, sometimes turbulent in the middle – but what happens in a meeting does not happen outside. Of course, this requires an experienced moderator who is able to keep an overview even in emotionally violent reactions and who can behave with appropriate empathy towards everyone.

We have had good experience in organising communication meetings together with the works council, employee representatives and management. This is where similarities become visible and differences become transparent. Each side has a different role and yet they are jointly responsible for shaping the situation for the people. And here again, every concern is to be taken seriously. In one case, the management had a reduction target which in their eyes was marginal (below the 10% mark) and therefore did not consider extensive communication necessary. One morning, the managers came to the site and saw 100 scarecrows wearing black T-shirts by the fence. It was the number of those to be dismantled. It may hit 100 people in the end, but in the beginning it hits everyone. And the principle is, what you do to one, you do to all.

There are many important characteristics of crisis communication – its quality makes a big difference, for the employees concerned and for the company. It takes experience to design such processes – and always a high level of emotional competence. Managers who have to deal with insecure people on a daily basis, and who are often insecure themselves, need support in these phases. If the attitude in the management circle is right, a constant empathic behaviour can be learned. Transparency, honesty and empathy are essential behavioural aspects in these processes. We at SYNNECTA are happy to do this task, even where it is very difficult, if one thing is given: the responsible leadership wants to make the process as honest and appreciative as possible for all those involved.

Rüdiger Müngersdorff/Fetiye Sisko
Photo: Hanna Göhler