The dangers of a communications vacuum in times of change.

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Nick Mackeson-Smith
Nick Mackeson-Smith
Chief Curiosity Officer, Founder and Director

Effective communication in times of change

With the pace and scale of change increasing almost daily, it’s becoming increasingly hard for people to know where they are at.  It’s becoming harder for people to pick out what’s true, what’s not, and what’s happening around them.

The last few weeks have seen monumental and ruthless change within some of the world’s most well-known and well-loved tech firms. In the aftermath, there have been countless examples of people sharing their experiences of being caught up in this change, and being bewildered about what just happened. At times, people have been unsure (or skeptical) about the actual reasons behind the changes themselves. In some cases, there has been a genuine void in communications.

Challenging times can call for difficult choices and regrettable actions, but there’s no excuse for leaving people with uncertainty about what’s going on and why. To be human is to be kind - not cold.

In any organisation, the power dynamic between leaders and employees can be greatly influenced by how transparent and open the leaders are in their communication. Executive leaders must be transparent about their plans, their intent behind their decisions, and their motivations for their actions. Failure to do so can result in a truth vacuum that employees will invariably fill with their own stories, which rarely reflect reality.

The importance of transparency from leadership cannot be overstated - especially in a time when information is readily available to all of us, and communication is instant and has a staggeringly large reach. A lack of transparency from executive leaders can lead to mistrust, rumours, and a whole host of other problems that can ultimately harm an organisation - both - internally through their culture, engagement, and motivation, and - externally through their brand, customer perception, customer loyalty, market performance, and unwelcome media coverage.  

Unfortunately, the absence of a transparent, clear, and consistent narrative from executive leaders can lead employees to incorrectly join the dots and infer something altogether quite different. For example, if an executive leader announces that the company is downsizing, but does not provide a clear explanation as to why or what the long-term plans are, employees may assume the worst and begin to speculate on what the company's future holds. Are they viable? Are they in trouble? Is this change for the shareholders or for the customers? Is this the start of something bigger? What are we not being told? This can lead to fear, uncertainty, and ultimately, a lack of motivation among employees. The behaviour of “filling in the gaps” in the absence of having actual information isn’t something new.

I remember experiencing this (and doing this) in the playground as a child. I remember experiencing this (and doing this) in the early stages of my career. It’s definitely a thing, and we ALL have the propensity to do it, unfortunately. Our brains look for patterns in the data we’re presented with, and looks for similar or imagined experiences that match with what we’re seeing - our brain fills in the gaps in an attempt to help out and make things faster. It’s a helpful shortcut if our experiences are closely aligned to what we’re seeing in the moment, but it’s distinctly UNHELPFUL when the current situation doesn’t match our previous experience. Studies in psychology have explored this phenomenon of filling a truth vacuum with one's own stories.

One study found that people are more likely to believe false information if they have already heard it before, even if they were previously told it was false. For these reasons, it’s SO IMPORTANT for executive leaders to do everything they can to prevent the communications vacuum from forming.

To avoid the pitfalls of a lack of communication and transparency, executive leaders can take three simple steps:

1. Communicate clearly and consistently. Ensure that your communication is clear and consistent, and that it is shared with everyone who needs it. This can include regular town hall meetings, kitchen chats, ask-me-anything sessions, email updates, video messages, and other forms of communication to ensure everyone is on the same page. Where you can, make it a conversation - not just an information download.

2. Explain the intent behind actions. Whenever possible, explain the intent behind actions taken by the organisation. This can help employees understand why certain decisions were made, and it can also help build trust by showing that the organisation has a long-term plan in mind.

3. Be transparent about motivations. Finally, be transparent about motivations. Whether it's a desire to improve the organisation, increase profits, or help employees, be clear about what is motivating your actions. This can help build trust and encourage buy-in from employees.Knowledge is power - especially when it’s shared openly and freely with everyone.

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

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