Everyone wants to communicate good news. We want to hear positive feedback and maybe a few accolades for a job well done, but what happens when you have to share poor news or just plain bad news? Did your communication skills just slip out the back door? Did your self-esteem slide out with them?
So often in a tough environment, managers who used to be believers in the power of communication fall mute. For some, they don’t know what to say or are afraid to say the wrong thing, while others don’t want to face up to the situation or believe it is a secret that something is wrong. Ultimately, none of these excuses will hold up to scrutiny, and in fact, a lack of good communication in difficult times just makes the situation worse.
Who Do Managers Need to Communicate With?
If you’ve watched the movie “My Cousin Vinnie,” there is a line delivered late in the movie: “It’s OK. You can say it. They already know.” Similarly in business, the team is aware when something is wrong or turmoil exists. However, what they don’t know is how you, as their manager, will handle it. Often they have figured out that issues exist, but they don’t have all of the facts, so they “fill in” the parts they don’t know. What they imagine is almost always worse than the real situation, but since you aren’t talking, they let their minds wander. You are out of options before you know it.
While you may feel this is the wrong advice, it works every time: when your business is in a downturn or undergoing strife, start communicating immediately, consistently and often. For example, lenders gets nervous because they don’t know what is going on. They will begin to ask questions like: Why do the numbers look so bad? What happened? If the lenders were part of the discussion early on and were involved on a regular basis, there is no panic or “knee jerk” reaction because they have had time to evaluate their options and keep management informed.
The same holds true for your vendors. These conversations are not easy, but you will maintain control of the situation much longer if you have authentic, realistic conversations consistently. Ultimately, if a vendor has the choice between bad news or no news at all, they will choose bad news over silence every time.
What about employees? Communicate with them more than anyone else. They don’t need a recap of every conversation you’ve had throughout the process, but they will stay around longer if they feel like they are part of the solution and needed by the company. First, the employees already know far more than you think they do about the situation, and second, the best and brightest will leave first if you haven’t given them a reason to stay. When your company is in turnaround mode, losing key employees will only make the situation more difficult.
The Art of Communicating
Communicating bad news is an art form all on its own, but the most important rule is DO NOT LIE. You won’t be forgiven for deceit. And you won’t be trusted again – EVER. You promised a check would be out this Friday, and now you can’t send it. As soon as you are aware, pick up the phone. “When we last talked it looked like I would be able to send a check this Friday, but we can’t.” “Looking at the circumstances today it will be at least next Wednesday before I can release the check promised to you.” You might be faced with some backlash, but you’ve provided realistic information as soon as you have it, and you’ve made a bad situation a bit better because of it. People will remember that.
Businesses come and go, the economy fluctuates up and down, products are hot and then not, and strong managers can be weak. Through all of the upturns and downturns, managers must manage. That is the reason managers exist – to manage so the business is functioning properly and optimally, and making the best of an unexpected situation. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be middle management. Product would move from the factory floor to the store without oversight. It would sell itself.
Managers have just a few tools at their disposal; however, opportunity lies in their ability to motivate their staff. Through regular, consistent presence and communication, good managers will succeed—in the upturns and downturns.