Delivering Meaning in a Turbulent Workplace
Above all, turbulent times require meaningful messages.That would appear to be a truism, but turbulence also tends to create one of two reactions.The first is panic.The second is denial. Both are serious challenges to the clear thinking that turbulent times require of organizational leaders and the staff people whose job it is to help create and keep them on message.
Think about the internal audience for company messages. Their fundamental question is: What does this (event, decision or trend) mean to or for me? It’s natural for people to look first at the threat or opportunity that turbulent change augurs for their personal circumstances. Evolution has determined the fight-or-flight response as the first human reaction to trouble . . . so we can’t help ourselves.
When leaders don’t supply context around their pronouncements,
they unknowingly trigger the choice for people to stand their ground,
in short, to find a way to defend themselves
against perceived danger or to run away.
In the case of corporate threats to one’s security, the fight response is to seek understanding as a means of determining the danger as well as arriving at a defense.When turbulence rains down confusion and doubt, the company audience collectively seeks answers.“How and why did this happen? Who is to blame for what went wrong? Let’s find them and punish them for their neglect or their mistakes in not recognizing the threat sooner or not having a strategy to cope with it now.” Much of that reaction is not articulated except in private and hushed conversations about the common dilemma that the audience feels in their helplessness to fight back.
A contemporary example is the backlash from people who have lost their jobs from globalization or automation or simply the overwhelming reality of change.Their ultimate response is to wish to retreat to a simpler time before change disrupted the routine and entitlement of their lives. It is the classic flight response on the heels of an inevitably failed fight against change.
So the question is what can the communication
professional do to explain turbulent change in terms
that his or her audience can absorb and adapt to?
It’s not an easy question by any means.The best answer is analogous to the question of one’s personal health, namely, a life style that enables and nurtures the habits that prevent disease and illness. In this case it is an ongoing leadership explanation and discussion of the environment in which a company must operate and the opportunities and threats that company faces.
We call that the marketplace, and it is the determinant of company strategy and success or or failure. In short, the fundamental need is to turn all eyes outward to the marketplace trends and forces that shape the organization’s fate as well as its response.The organization’s particular marketplace with its threats, opportunities and forces is the first cause of all leadership decisions and actions.That means that the leadership task in the face of change and turbulence is to develop the context that illuminates and explains the why of both strategy and results. The reason is that, above all, change severs the comfortable connections we all need to explain the meaning of our existence not only in life generally but also in the workplace specifically. In turn, that need requires the professional communicator to see the delivery of meaning as his or her number one job.
The complexity of today’s change makes it close to impossible for people to, in the parlance of our time, connect the dots. That metaphor incorrectly requires people on their own to sort through all the news and noise and assemble a coherent view of the organization’s reality and what that reality is likely to mean to and for them.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roger D’Aprix is one of the pre-eminent thought leaders in the practice of organizational communication. He is the head of his consultancy, D'Aprix & Co. LLC, specializing in consultation to Fortune 500 companies in all phases of employee communication. Mr. D’Aprix is a member of ROI Communication's Advisory Board, a global consultancy dedicated to resolving the communication issues of Fortune 500 companies and their equivalents.