Leadership is a difficult position to be in during challenging economic times. On Episode 122 of the Talent & Growth podcast I spoke to Elisa Hebert, the VP of Operations and Engineering at Fairwinds. Her experience has been centred around periods of change in businesses and navigating those changes with her people, particularly through mergers and acquisition. She joined me on the podcast to talk about how leaders can steer their teams through similar periods of change.  

What do leaders need to consider when communicating with their staff during times of change?

I’m biassed towards transparency. You have to be thoughtful about what you’re putting out and the way you’re talking about it though, because it can overwhelm or worry people if you’re not being specific about what you’re trying to communicate and why. Always give people the context to process the information you’re giving them. Part of your job as a leader is to make sure that people have the right environment to be successful in their role and in the company. People need to feel like they have a place in the organisation, like they understand where they fit and how the things that they’re doing contribute to the larger success. As managers, your job is to give people that context around what’s going on at the higher levels of the organisation, but it’s important to let people know how it will affect them without overwhelming them. 

How can leaders determine how much information is appropriate to share with their staff? 

Mergers and acquisitions are inherently stressful activities. It can be anxiety provoking. You need to start with a baseline plan of what information you want to share, how much you should tell people and a way to share it constructively. You should make sure that you understand where people are coming from, such as if people have been through an acquisition before and if they know what to expect. In any scenario, you want to share the information that helps people be able to do their job well, and you don’t want to gate-keep or block information that they need. Fundamentally, protecting people means helping them understand context, not hiding context from them. 

What are some of the mistakes that leaders make in terms of their communication?

The biggest mistake that I’ve seen is making a big blanket statement. Saying something like  ‘We’re not going to lay anybody off’, or ‘We are definitely going to do XYZ’ will create mistrust because you don’t know that that is true. Saying things like ‘We’re all gonna get along’ is a similar issue, because people can come back and say ‘You told me everything was going to be the same, but you’re changing this thing that I really care about, and now I think you’re full of crap’. It will erode your credibility as a leader if you’ve made definitive statements and then things beyond your control end up changing. Those statements create unnecessary emotional blockers.

What are the best practices for communicating with staff during changes? 

You should try to protect people and help them find a soft landing. You should be open about what’s happening. The first step is reducing the noise around layoffs. If you want to continue to employ people in a place that they think is good to work in with other interesting people, you have to make sure that the business is healthy. Sometimes that does mean costs have to be reduced. People get really frustrated around layoffs that they didn’t know about in advance, but if you announce you’re gonna have layoffs, everybody gets nervous. I want people to be able to make the best decisions for themselves, and I have to protect the business at the same time. Leaders should keep those two things in balance as much as possible. 

To hear more of Elisa’s insights into communicating effectively in leadership, tune into the Talent & Growth Podcast here