The Cost of Saying Nothing

Here's a scenario you can relate to. You're sitting on a plane that has left the gate and is parked alongside a taxiway. Outside your window, plane after plane rolls by and then roars down the runway into the sky. You sit, wait, and wonder. No one tells you what is happening; no one gives you a clue as to when your plane will roll. The captain is silent, and the flight attendants huddle in the galley and refuse to respond to questions.

This is a microcosm of how some organizations in transition act, where the leaders ignore the most important questions and concerns of stakeholders. Few people can concentrate on their work, and everyone is looking for answers. Some of the more decisive people, the best employees, are dying to get off this "plane" and are working on a plan to do just that. If only someone would tell them something….It would buy everyone time.

What will happen to my job, my career, my friends and colleagues? What about my benefits? Who's going to be my boss? Those are just a few of the "what about me" questions that consume employees - and their productivity - when there's a major change.

You may not have answers to many of these questions; or you know employees won't like the answers. Announcing that one of your plants will be closed before plans are set, or revealing months ahead of time that half the sales team may be laid off, are invitations for competitors to raid your best performers. Premature announcements can cause employees to be less productive.

In situations like these the temptation is to say nothing. And sometimes we even flirt with the idea of giving an answer that is actually a lie or obfuscation. Employees can see through these tactics, making them ineffective and potentially damaging. Confront the painful questions and concerns and show that you are aware of how your employees feel.

Here's an example of how to handle a situation in which you need to respond and don't have all the answers:

A trusted subordinate tells you that the uncertainty following the merger announcement is beginning to take its toll. People suspect that the two sales teams will be merged. Many sales reps are thinking about leaving and even actively looking for other jobs. She says, "I've always been up-front with you, and I too am worrying about my future. I and my colleagues need to know what you're thinking, what our future is."

You have only one course of action here, because you are dealing with a person you trust and who, over the years, has developed trust in you. So you say, "We fully explained why this merger is the right move for us, how it will benefit most of us, our customers, and the thousands of people who own this company. Now we have to make it work, and we need all of you, especially people like you, to make that happen. We will be making decisions in the weeks and months ahead that will offer opportunities to most of us, but for some there will be unpleasant, maybe even painful, changes. Some may lose their job or change their career track. I would give you details now if I could, but I don't know them yet, and it would be unfair for me to speculate or theorize. But I can tell you this. The people who team up with us to make this a success will be rewarded. And the people who have to leave at some point because of the changes that will inevitably take place will be taken care of. We are committed to treating our employees with respect and decency. And I promise we are hearing you and will tell you as much as we can, as soon as we can."

The same principles of sensitivity shown to this trusted individual can be extended to all employees. Whether you're addressing one close colleague, or the entire workforce, a leader builds trust and loyalty by communicating. Although the message you are communicating may not specifically address their concerns, the act of communication itself, with an assurance that you understand, enables your employees to focus on their work instead of their fears.

Remember how you felt when the pilot finally expressed understanding that you were being inconvenienced and announced that a cockpit warning light was being diagnosed? The pilot may not have known how soon you'd be taking off, but that simple communication, and acknowledgement, allowed you to at least fire up the laptop and be productive while you waited for an answer.

© Evergreen Communication