A while ago, I found myself working in the HR team of one of the biggest international insurance companies. The company was going through a period of massive change: new ownership, a big merger, complete change of leadership, and some big decisions to be made about the future direction of the company that would involve outsourcing and redundancies.
The new leadership needed to make an announcement, and I was one of those asked to prepare the presentation that would be given to 1,500 employees. It was not going to be good news. Half of those in the audience would not be there for the next meeting in a few months’ time.
We went through the 50 slides that the senior leader would present. There were an initial 45 slides of unrelenting gloom, doom and justification. That left just a few slides to set out what was going to happen next. It was as if a finger was going to be pointed at everyone: “You’re fired!”
I was a junior in the room, with no real influence. After everyone else had given their opinions, I ventured timidly to ask, “How do we think people will feel after we’ve made them sit through 45 slides before we tell them what’s actually changing for them?”
The director told me that wasn’t important. “They just need the facts, the reasons we’ve made these decisions.”
Won’t it make them even more annoyed and bitter sitting through 45 slides of your justification? It was anathema to ask such a question but a shadow of doubt had crossed their minds and a decision was made to bring in an external consultant to advise the team. The consultant duly arrived, rewarded with a large fee, and he sat through the same presentation. “Tell me,” he said. “Imagine the CEO unexpectedly calls you, along with the rest of the leadership team, into his office at 9am. Is it good news or bad news?”
“Bad,” they all said in unison.
“How would you then feel to be on the receiving end of something like this – sitting through dozens of slides, knowing that your fate will be displayed on screen – eventually?” Inevitably there was shuffling of papers, a lot of eyes cast downwards and a few mumbles of, “Not best pleased”, “Frustrated”, “Angry”.
“Let me put it another way: would the experience make you feel good about being part of this company?” he asked.
“Even though this is a difficult message, what about if we try to make them feel valued by the way we deliver it? Maybe tell them up front what is going to change and what it means for them personally, then maybe how you’re going to help them through it and finally, why you’ve chosen to do it.”
Of course. You could have heard a pin drop.
Then the CIO said, “That’s genius!”
The outcome was that the leadership team decided to go along with a different approach. The presentation was reduced to six slides. They explained clearly ‘why’ this was being done, but only after they had explained the ‘what’ first – and with the appreciation of how they wanted to leave people feeling – clear, focused and confident, knowing what was to happen next and what help was available. With some nervousness, the director stood up and presented the slides at a big theatre packed with anxious, expectant employees.
After the presentation, the first hand raised was from a union rep. Even more nervousness was evident in the room. “Should we have used the old approach? Focused more on the intellectual reasons for the change first?” The rep made his point in the forthright way that had put him into that role. “I’m going to fight you all the way,” he declared. “But I can honestly say this is the first time we’ve had bad news communicated to us as if we’re adults. Thank you.”
The most powerful question to ask a leader as they prepare to communicate, especially in a change situation, is this: How do you want to leave people feeling? You know you can’t guarantee the outcome but the very act of asking the question will ensure you don’t ever ignore the emotional reactions that people have to experiences. We are creatures of emotion; we need to be more aware of how we leave people feeling, to anticipate the effects, and to measure it as quickly and in as real-time as possible. If this approach interests you why not drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org I’d love to hear from you.