Q: My firm is in a pretty stagnant stage of growth right now and employees seem to perceive us as "struggling." People are nervous and we on the management team don't seem to be doing a good job of reassuring them. What would you suggest?
A: Be sure your communications are consistent in order to get your message across.
The inner game
Figuring this out will take some focus, so set aside some time, get rid of distractions, and get centered.
Now, think about what's really going on with your company. Start by considering the information that you have. Are you sure things are OK or is that a hope? Also think about your colleagues on the management team. If some of you are feeling confident and others are anxious, employees will pick up on this and lose confidence in "think positive" messages.
Analyze the actual communication that has taken place. Notice if the formal matches the informal, and if everyone is sending the same messages. Then assess the tone. If you're trying to deliver reassuring news but sound like Eeyore, you'll blur the message. Take a very hard look to identify any mixed messages that you and the team may be sending.
Finally, assess whether you have a sufficiently robust communication plan. If everything is just ad hoc, it'll be worth becoming more intentional, an activity that must include your entire management team.
The outer game
Starting now, you and your colleagues all need to be sure you're on the same page, and be able to honestly reflect differences. Your goal is appropriate transparency with your employees.
First, figure out what you want people to know. For example, you might have lost a sizable client. This could cause fear, but if your annual plan includes a certain amount of business loss, then it may not be a surprise or cause for concern. This is important information to share. If you have differences in points-of-view, get that all out on the table; this is no time to mask differences.
Next, plan your communications. It's probably worth a formal "get your cards on the table" session. Talk about concerns employees may have, your perspectives on the future, and the plan for going forward. And consider bringing edibles to the meeting; it goes a long way to encouraging attendance and helping people relax. Then focus on staying "on message" in informal interactions so that people can feel confident in what you've said.
Look at other behaviors that may be raising anxiety. If you're visibly watching every paper clip, people will be scared. And realistically, it won't make a difference if you're really in trouble.
Also find ways to keep the atmosphere light. If things are stagnant, they may be a little slow. It's a good opportunity to have a fun but not extravagant event for your employees. And consider giving them a gift of time — an afternoon or day off goes a long way to building loyalty and keeping people happy.
The last word
Be straight with people — whatever they imagine will likely be worse than the truth.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.