While there are no magic words that fit every situation, there are some best practices we have discovered over the years.
1. Build trust before change. The time to start building trusting relationships is before you need them! In times of change, the trust between you and your people is critical. If you don’t have trust, it may be too late to have real communication. Employees who trust you will hear the perfect phrases as you intend them. This will create meaningful dialogue. However, if your relationship with them is damaged from past errors, employees may hear any phrase as more “B.S.” from management.
2. Be direct. We have found that many leaders either avoid difficult topics or are too timid with their people in tough change situations. For this reason, you will find many of the phrases in Chapter 6, “Perfect Phrases for Handling Resistance,” are direct and firm. It is often most effective to just give it to them straight rather than tiptoe around tough situations. Employees respect this. It tells employees you can be relied on for the truth. Also, in these days of corporate executive deceit, leaders have to go the extra mile to prove they are not one of the crooked lot.
3. Talk to key people early. In the absence of information, people make up stories. The faster you discuss news – even bad news —, the less negativity is created. With delays come rumors and false expectations. Get the news out as fast as you can. It will not only reduce anxiety, but it will give your team the time to start moving through a process that is often longer than you can predict.
4. Adjust to your audience. While leaders may think they are just “sending” a change message, there is always someone having a reaction. Don’t forget to adapt your message to this reaction. Look at those you are speaking with and notice how they respond and react. Pay attention to what their facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, or e-mail word choices are telling you. Some of the executives we work with undermine themselves because they overlook those signals. They are either too much in a rush to get the message out or overly involved with their own anxieties when delivering the news. Remember to adapt your message to your audience because whenever you are communicating change it is a two-way process.
5. Watch your body language. Most leaders know the adage: It’s not what you say but how you say it. But it is worth repeating here. You have to believe in what you’re saying. If you don’t, your body language will give you away and no one will believe you. During times of change, employees are looking for the truth. You will need to find ways to tell the truth in a way that is believable.
6. Find your style. Don’t get hung up on picking the perfect word, rather find a style that works for your personality. Each leader has his or her own style. Some have a flair for the dramatic. Others focus on inspiring. Some speak plainly and direct. They can all be equally effective change communicators. The same is true of the phrases in this book. Depending on where you stand, our phrases may be too cutthroat or too nice, too cheesy or too formal. Find the style and words that fit your personality and situation.
7. Choose the right person to deliver the message. Who delivers the message makes an impression. For example, when communicating about a new position title–whether the message comes from a high-level executive or a Human Resources person has a very different effect. Having a senior business leader who you report to will have a big positive impact. However, choosing the leader closest to the employee may also be a good idea because that leader is trusted more and can better tailor the message to the audience. There is no simple formula. Choose the person who will create the best result.
8. Don’t expect to have all the answers. You won’t and can’t have all the answers to questions you’re going to be asked during change. It is a characteristic of change that a lot of details are clarified as the change implementation makes progress. Yet, employees continuously search for security and clarity. In such cases it is best to just say, “I’ll find it for you” and then find out. If there is no answer, tell them so and leverage the phrases in this book to help them understand why. Remember, questions are a great opportunity to reinforce your business case for change.
9. Don’t expect the “perfect phrase.” You prepare and plan. Then you get in the room and the human being(s) opposite you have a reaction different from what you expected. This is life. You will need to continually adjust your words, tone, and focus to get your message across. Rest assured that the best spontaneous conversations are well planned. Thinking through and practicing your words will definitely help you get as close to perfect as humanly possible!
This was first published in our book Perfect Phrases for Communicating Change (McGraw-Hill)