Leaders Must Communicate in Difficult Times

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NEW YORK—With so many businesses in turmoil, it is more important than ever for company leaders to communicate clearly to employees. Unfortunately, according to a new study, that’s not happening.

Employees tend to assume the worst if executives do not keep them posted during bad times, and rumors and gossip can adversely affect employee and team morale. According to a new survey from communications firm Weber Shandwick Worldwide, one of the world’s leading global public relations firms with global offices, more than 70 percent of 514 workers surveyed said they are not getting enough communication from their company leaders about the financial crisis and how it affects their company and their future.

Most employees are saying that their senior management is not speaking to them about the crisis, says Harris Diamond, CEO of Weber Shandwick. More than half the workers surveyed said “they’ve heard nothing during this crisis.”

The lack of frequent and clear communication and information from company leaders may translate to an uncertain outlook. Some 70 percent of employees surveyed expect the current economic and financial problems to negatively impact the company they work for over the next year. Another 62 percent of them said their company would have trouble meeting its goals; about a quarter believe their company will have to lay off employees. Why do they hold these beliefs? Likely because their company leadership is not communicating with them; they are drawing their own conclusion absent factual and clear communication about the financial crisis and how their company plans to compete during difficult financial times.

Many top executives may not be deliberately keeping employees in the dark, Diamond said. He believes that company leaders may be consumed with guiding the company through the economic turbulence. Other managers may not know yet what steps they will be forced to take, so they are unclear what to communicate to employees until those decisions are made. In any event, Diamond warns that silence is a big mistake.

“The problem is, when [employees] assume the worst, they are de-motivated,” he said. “They’re not necessarily sure anybody is in charge, they make assumptions and in many cases they decide to leave.” The departure of skilled talent and a fearful, de-motivated organization can be very damaging for a company trying to navigate through a tough economy, he noted.

Mid-managers and supervisors need to communicate clearly and frequently as well. “Organizations that equip their front-line managers to address conditions and times like what we’re now facing, will have greater alignment with business objectives, a greater sense of urgency and a higher level of performance and retention of key people during a downturn,” according to Diamond. “It’s critical.”