Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Communicate through the downturn...but don't overdo it

As recession nears, the tendency in most corporate is to slash and burn – and then batten down the hatches. Training, development, communication and R&D all tend to suffer as reduced income leads organisations to focus on what’s seen as core services.

Yet, is it not just as essential when times are tough to focus on your people and to keep the innovation pipeline flowing? If you can manage to keep your best people – and even poach a few from the competition – and find innovative ways to deliver your business goals, you’ll be in a much better position to gain a competitive edge once the upturn finally comes around.

It’s easy to cut communication resource when times are tough, but there’s a real danger that this will lead only to greater uncertainty among your workforce, and an even greater likelihood that your best people will walk. They’re the ones who’ll be in demand, even in tough times, and they’re the ones you should be focusing your communication on.


There’s no harm in using a downturn to audit how you communicate with your people. In good times, we tend to get a little lazy. Communication mushrooms in terms of the media used and the frequency we hit our people with more and more corporate messages. There’s no harm in refocusing efforts: concentrating on what’s really important to share rather than what’s nice to share and blowing the froth away to get to what really matters.

This is the time to sharpen core tools – use line managers far more as a credible conduit for information. Give them the skills to build morale among their teams; to get people pulling towards clear and measurable goals, and encourage them to share small successes. Equally, listen to them. They’re your eyes and ears to real engagement among teams, but so often their voice is unheard.

Bring them together more, but for action not rhetoric. Tough times call for collaboration and visible leadership – your line management presents opportunities for both.

There’s received wisdom that says you should communicate more in tough times – but is that really worthwhile? If people suddenly hear more and different things, or have to adjust to new communication media, they may well just as easily assume the worst: ‘Why are they suddenly talking to us now?’ ‘What’s wrong?’

It’s better to tap into existing channels but to take time to understand what’s really motivating your people to deliver against a tough market and to shape communication around those drivers.

The staples remain: be honest, don’t speculate, and if you don’t have all the answers, tell people – and then try and find those answers.

As someone who has worked in internal communication through one recession, I’d say the two most important communication skills are the willingness to listen and the ability to be flexible. The business world is moving very quickly at the moment. You want to be on the front foot, not backed into a corner.

© Mark Shanahan 2008

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