Crisis Communication III

Few remarks on the announcement of the bad news

It is an event that captures the attention of the managers involved. Although it is only one step in a longer process, it is the central event because it sets the tone for the whole following process: the official first announcement.

Moderating such an event requires high emotional stability, the ability to perceive moods in a group early on and to address them sensitively. Without such control, misunderstandings, multiple sensitivities and unrecorded emotions take over the direction of the event.

It is important to involve all managers in the preparation – because they determine an important part of the evaluative assessment of the situation in side conversations, in their posture, in what they do not say and what they say afterwards – they are an important part of the social calibration. Often they are not involved enough, it is overlooked that they themselves are also affected and by preparing for the event and the process afterwards, they also have to and can clarify their own attitude. The mantra applies: Show presence!

It is understandable that intensive preparation is shunned again and again – one deals with an emotionally stressful and difficult topic and sometimes the desire to have already left it behind outweighs. However, with a joint intensive preparation of this event the foundation for the sustainability of the whole following process is laid and this process is not linear, it needs the ability to work iteratively as a leadership group and to deal with surprises, reversals and corrections.

Too often, very differentiated presentations are shown – they are politically and legally coordinated and usually too complicated. It is therefore important to work with the executives on stage to turn the complicated and differentiated slides into simple statements – at least when speaking. It’s all about striking the local tone.

Always too short, too loveless, only partially understanding the importance – the dialogue part of the proclamation. Here it is not just about asking questions, but about creating space for speaking. There are often only statements that ask nothing, but say what is happening emotionally. This space is of high importance, because here the people experience whether it is also about them or only about the handling of an economic problem. Here it is also conveyed that it is good, right and allowed to show emotions. After all, this is a situation in which then also the managers are no longer only preachers and explain, but also become visible and perceptible in their own emotionality. In these moments the feeling of togetherness, of being together, is created, even if the tasks and concerns are very different.

If an employee who knows that he will lose his job and who is still at a loss as to what to expect, goes to the responsible manager after such an event, by looking into his eyes and saying: »This is really bad and I don’t know what I can do now, but thank you for your clear words«, then together – the moderator, the managers and the group – have laid the foundation for a process in which everyone knows: We do the best we can in this situation and we do it for the community of all people who are affected.

Rüdiger Müngersdorff, Fetiye Sisko
Photo: David Straight by

Crisis Communication II

The dilemma of local leadership or A deep conflict of loyalties

There’s the decision. Costs have to be reduced, a reduction in staff is pending, perhaps the closure of a site or the sale of part of the company. The local management has the task of implementing the decision. A difficult task that plunges many managers into conflicts of loyalty. They themselves are insecure, but they want and should ensure that they act in a considered and secure manner.

So what happened before there was broader communication? There was a decision by headquarters – the local managers were hardly involved in this process, and if they were, then mainly as suppliers of analyses, data and information. With the decision, the task of implementation lies with the local management, which at first perceives the interfering support of the head office as helpful, but later, above all, as disturbing. The task now is not only to inform the people, to take their concerns and needs seriously and accompany them, to negotiate social packages, to start initiatives to give the affected MA an opportunity outside, but also to maintain productivity until the last day. The contact to the own employees becomes more intensive, they move much closer with their lives and the expectation develops that the local leadership will do everything to protect, maintain and maintain the own organisation. Naturally, conflicts arise here between what a head office wants and what local employees expect – and the responsible local management stands between both expectations. The personally challenging task now is to keep both interests in balance and to stay emotionally balanced. Good managers feel deeply committed to both sides – to the employees in their need, their worries and uncertainties, to the company that made such a decision for good reasons and with an eye to the bigger picture. A dilemma, often a moral dilemma, but always an emotional dilemma.

A particular challenge is to compensate for the loss of credibility that is inevitable from the very beginning. At the beginning, the local management already knows what is going to happen, but is bound to secrecy by very strict confidentiality agreements. If communication then takes place, one of the first accusations made by employees is: Why did you keep quiet for so long? How are we actually supposed to trust you, since you were involved in all this?

It is a difficult task, a task that deeply questions your own belief system. It is a task for which most managers are not prepared. How can they behave? How can they make room in the contradictions, the head and the heart equally? How can they deal with their own insecurities and worries and not let them distract them from their task?

Should managers be accompanied in such tasks? In all social professions it has proven to be a good idea to offer supervision for individuals as well as for teams. The point is to be aware of the situation and one’s own actions even in difficult situations. Only a guided self-reflection can help to be able to act and to act in the interest of all participants. We have had very good experience with a supervision approach in all the processes we have accompanied. The support helps all sides – the head office because it achieves its goal, the local management because it does not betray the interests of either side and can leave the process even with a clear awareness, and the employees because only a stable local management can ensure that new options for their own future can emerge even in this emergency.

Rüdiger Müngersdorff/Fetiye Sisko
Photo: Mauro Mora by

Crisis Communication I

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

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Cultural sensitivity allows a more effective Change Management: organizational culture as a field of discourses in tension

Cultural anthropologists have addressed the cultural aspects of organizations and companies since the 1920s, beginning with the Hawthorne Experiments. Now, economists and management have come to recognize that organizational culture is a resource for economic success that should not be underestimated. There are two trends in the debates about a precise definition of organizational culture: while one group assumes that every company has a culture (instrumental view, objectivism, organizational culture as subsystem), the other side argues that every company is a culture (institutional view, subjectivism, organizational culture as an encompassing system) (see, e.g. Franken 2004: 219f). Both groups, however, tend to disregard a fundamental aspect of culture: its dynamic nature.

In the following analysis, organizational culture will be considered as a field of discourses in tension within which employees have a range of possible courses of action at their disposal. Following Rainer Keller’s sociology of knowledge approach to discourse (Keller 2005), discourse is understood to be »ensembles of meaningful units structured by content and form, which are produced within a specific set of practices: structured connection of interpretation/action. They provide meaning […] to social phenomena and therefore constitute their social reality. They are simultaneously an expression and constitutive condition of the social.« (Keller 1999).

According to cultural anthropologist Wolfgang Kaschuba, a discourse includes

  • a set system of argumentation,
  • a system that defines a topical field and sets the rules of engagement,
  • a thought system that configures the perception of reality and
  • a social practice system that connects manners of thinking and acting. (Kaschuba 1999: 236f)

Every social system prefers a certain type of discourse and controls, organizes and channels the production of all discourses so as to maintain order (see, e.g., Foucault 1994). Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, however, made it clear that any single social system is always percolated by several discourses, which will either support each other or are mutually exclusive in a state of the differend (Lyotard 1987). Even where one discourse is excluded or suppressed by the publicly advanced and currently more powerful discourses that does not mean that it does not have any influence or cannot even become that major discourse in particular situations.

From this point of view, every company is a lived culture, where the manner in which culture is lived will be defined by (competing) discourses. A company can, however, also have a culture, e.g., by having a displayed culture that may be enforced by top management by means of discourse in order to attain a principle set of concrete values, norms and rules. The discrepancy between displayed and lived culture is, as change projects show time and again, one of the most important reasons for resentment and a lack of motivation among the employees. In this context, a differend in discourses will soon develop into internal crises of plausibility within companies, and these will sooner or later seep outside via the employees and can cause lasting damage to the company’s, brand’s or product’s reputation.

However, change management that goes deeper than the mere surface essentially produces a differend in discourses and therefore a field of discourses in tension: the »old« lived organizational culture (condition as is) is confronted with a »new« displayed organizational culture (condition as desired). Change management has to face the challenge of turning displayed into lived culture – easily said, but much more difficultly done. Each lived organizational culture has discourse resources that can support change towards a displayed culture; it can, however, also raise discourse barriers that will hinder successful change management.

Against this background, cultural anthropology and its own theoretic, methodic and practical set of tools emerges as a leading discipline for a change management that has a sensibility for culture and therefore will have a lasting effect…

Johannes Ries

This text is an extract from the article »Führungs-Kraft Unternehmenswerte: Kultursensibles Change Management im diskursiven Spannungsfeld von Unternehmenskulturen«, published in the anthology »Die verdeckten Spielregeln der Veränderung«, ed. by Johannes Ries and Susanne Spülbeck, Lit-Verlag, 2015. Available at bookstores.