The placebo effect of leadership communication

Talking recently with a group of communicators from the pharmaceutical sector, the conversation turned to the placebo effect – where medicines which have no active ingredient are given to patients for psychological rather than physiological reasons. In other words, the drugs themselves will have no chemical impact, but often the belief that they are doing some good heartens the patient and this can aid recovery. I made the casual remark that we could probably say something similar about much internal communication – the content can be secondary to the fact that it is happening which reassures people and makes them feel in touch.

This not entirely serious comment sparked a more in-depth discussion. Just as seemingly useless drugs can actually serve a very helpful purpose and in some cases help people get better, so too can communications which on the surface don’t appear to be saying much.  At times, it’s the process of communication which is important, rather than the messages being shared. This is especially the case with leadership communication.

We have worked with several client organizations going through tough and comprehensive changes.  Sometimes, it is hard to share information fully with employees, perhaps because plans are still being finalized, or in case of mergers and acquisitions, because of commercial and legal considerations.  Leaders are faced with a dilemma – do they continue communicating even though there is not much to say, or wait until the messages are clear.  Many chose to stay quiet. Sometimes this is for the best of motives as they want to make sure that when they do communicate, they can give people the fullest possible picture. Other times the motives are more personal as the leader fears being exposed or caught out and appearing not to be in control.

Whatever the reasons, we have seen that large gaps in communication during periods of change are mostly viewed negatively.  People are very unlikely to be charitable and say to themselves, ‘it’s all very complicated, and I’m sure they will tell us what’s going on as soon as they can’.  It’s much more probable that they will be muttering, ‘it must be terrible as they can’t even face telling us’ or ‘they all know what’s happening but they are keeping us in the dark to have the element of surprise’ or perhaps even worse, ‘ they haven’t got a clue what’s going on, that’s why they’re so quiet’.  Rumour and speculation can run wild, often with no one available to challenge them or put another point of view.

On the other hand, where leaders do sustain communication during periods of uncertainty, we have seen it bring huge benefits.  Even when there is not much to say, keeping a regular pulse of communication, especially face to face, provides reassurance and consistency. Visibility of senior leaders in particular is crucial as people are comforted to see and hear from those involved in shaping the changes and the deal. If there is not much new to say, leaders can still do useful things such as field questions, reiterate timetables, and share possible scenarios. Perhaps most importantly they get the chance to ask questions themselves to find out what people are making of what’s happening, how they are feeling and why.  Of course, at some point, people will need more information and some hard facts.  Our research shows, however, that during periods when there is not much to say, maintaining regular contact helps keep people focused, grounded and reassured and reduce the power of the inevitable rumour mill.

Perhaps the biggest impact of sustained communication is on trust which is a crucial commodity during change.  We have seen trust levels decline rapidly when leaders are no longer visible, especially where previously they had been known for regular and open discussions. Conversely trust can build quickly when leaders meet people and talk, especially if they share their own feelings and are prepared to be a little vulnerable. Trust in leaders is easily lost and then much harder to win back, yet it is the single biggest factor in how engaged people feel and their willingness to get involved in changes.

At the end of our conversation we concluded that there is a valuable symbolic effect of sustained leadership communication at times when there is not much to say. Even without an active ingredient – some hard information – regular communication has a powerful effect, rather like a placebo.  We were just agreeing on that when one of the group said that perhaps the real active ingredient in leadership communication is not the content itself, but the opportunity to discuss and raise questions.  This ignited a whole new conversation which is perhaps a topic for a future blog.

 

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