In speaking with a leader friend recently, we admitted most of us leaders do a lousy job when it comes to change communication plans.
We’ve all experienced lousy communication with changes like:
- A re-org is in the works but not being discussed until its finalized.
- A staff member gets moved, leaves or is fired and the rest of the team is left wondering why and if they’re next.
- A new direction is being determined by the top-level leaders and nobody knows when it will be decided or how it will affect their area.
- A plan on the verge of implementation gets put on hold unexpectedly, leaving the team in limbo.
My friend shared that her organization was in the middle of a tremendous transition and she and her team felt completely in the dark. I related how hard it can be for a leader to know what to share and when.
Leaders are afraid that if we say something:
- The information we share might change tomorrow.
- The information we share might be used against us.
- People will overreact.
- People will want to weigh-in on the decision.
- People will want more details that we just don’t have.
So instead of saying anything wrong or incomplete, we wait. We withhold. We say nothing.
Saying nothing is the absolute worst thing we can say as leaders.
Let’s put it another way: saying nothing is like handing your team a book of Mad Libs. Remember playing this wacky word game when you were a kid? Each page has a different story with lots of blanks to be filled in. You ask a friend to say a noun, verb, place or name and you fill in their responses in the appropriately labeled blanks. Then when all the blanks are filled, you read the story back to your friend and laugh hysterically at how “Francisco went swimming in sesame seeds wearing a fur coat and witch hat.” How silly!
When we decide to tell our teams nothing about the change in the works, we basically hand them a book of Mad Libs specific to our organization. Each page features a different story about a leader, team, product, or process. And each story has lots of blanks to fill in: people, places, actions, decisions, reasons. Our teams become consumed with completing all the stories during coffee breaks, lunches, cubicle drive-bys, hallway meet-ups, and after-meeting meetings. Then, our team members start to compare stories with each other:
Frida: “Francisco got fired because he loves cats and I love cats so I’m getting fired, too!”
Felipe: “No, no, silly. Francisco was fired because he hates Tuesdays. Everybody else who hates Tuesdays will be transferred to a new office in Siberia where they don’t have Tuesdays.”
Frida: “Oh. That makes more sense. Whew! Good thing I love Tuesdays!”
Felipe: “Lucky you. I’ve already sold my surfboard and started buying long underwear.”
Leader friends, the worst thing we can do in times of uncertainty, change, or transition is say nothing. When we say nothing, our teams start filling in the blanks to the stories by way of speculation, assumption, and gossip. While a Mad Libs approach to leadership communication can give us some ridiculous story lines, this approach also brings uncertainty, anxiety, and mistrust.
So if you need to say something but can’t say everything, just what do you say to avoid saying nothing? My next post will feature 5 tips for filling in the blanks with meaningful something when you feel like you can’t say anything.
* I absolutely LOVED playing Mad Libs as a kid. As an adult, I’ve bought countless books as gifts including the Lego Star Wars and Christmas Carol versions.