Leadership communication in turbulent times

In today’s turbulent economic climate, people are nervous — and those people are your employees, your vendors, your clients and your customers. How leaders communicate with them can make or break whether their company endures or thrives.

In difficult times we need to overcome the tendency to communicate less about less. Leaders must be thoughtful and deliberate about every message they send, whether verbal or through their actions.

For large businesses, this may mean creating a strategy to disseminate information and using the company grapevine for good, rather than allowing it to take on a negative life of its own. For small businesses, this may mean communicating with your employees to keep morale, and thus productivity, high. For microbusinesses, this may mean communicating positively with your clients and prospects to bolster confidence and, ideally, generate new business.

This deliberate approach takes effort, since the tendency to “hunker down” in turbulent times feels natural to most of us. But by taking control of their own attitudes, actions and words, leaders can take control of how their company responds to the bumpy ride most companies are facing right now.

Attitude, action and words

Business leaders can take a page from the playbook of elite athletes who do intensive mental training to prepare for competition and control their performance.

One helpful exercise is to make a list of the attributes you’d like others to see in you consistently. What do you want people to say about you behind your back, in good times and bad? Do you want to be seen as approachable? Flexible? Trustworthy? Positive? Diligent? Committed? Focused? Dependable? Action-oriented? Make a list and keep it near your telephone or computer monitor to consistently remind yourself to create positive moments, even when communicating challenging news.

In uncertain times, unintended messages can do a great deal of damage. Leaders need to be aware of their own attitudes. A poor attitude and disposition can inadvertently affect morale throughout an entire company.

When athletes step onto the playing field, they’re prepared to win. Business leaders should consider everything outside the front door of their house to be their playing field. How you walk from the parking lot to the office, from the main entrance to your office and throughout the hallways of your operation will speak volumes.

There is a very real conditional sequence between thinking and action. What we think influences what we feel, and how we feel can greatly impact the way we behave. When leaders are under pressure, they need to take time to mentally prepare before they are visible and expected to perform.

Your people are watching you and taking cues from your behavior. If you’re positive, upbeat and willing to face the challenges ahead, your people will follow you. Remember that your people aren’t only your employees — they’re your clients, customers, prospects, vendors and partners.

Your interpersonal effectiveness also is guided by your actions. If you have invested time with your team and have a history of rapport and trust, your chances of inspiring that team to follow you in difficult times is much greater. Once you have gained their trust, your ability to influence and manage conflict and growing pains becomes much easier, because your people have chosen to commit to your direction rather than just comply.

It’s imperative to decide who is going to be in charge of how the team or company responds to an uncertain marketplace and a potential tidal wave of bad news. Communication with all your stakeholders should be deliberate, frequent, action-oriented and positively framed.

If you’re “in charge” of your messages, you can drive how your team responds to bad news and positively influence those listening.

Create talking points for your management team. Coach them how and what to communicate internally and externally about the current situation. This is not about “spin” — it’s about framing your thoughts and messages to maintain focus on moving the business forward. Let the grapevine take over and watch productivity and morale decline rapidly.

Clever leaders use the grapevine to strengthen the organization and create a positive employee experience. By planting frequent and consistent positive messages, negativity doesn’t have a chance to take hold of your culture and environment. Make sure your managers are trained to listen for negativity and discontent on your company grapevine and that they are equipped to communicate positive messages to counteract it.

Whether we’re communicating to individuals or groups, in this economy how we “show up” as leaders is more critical than ever. Don’t let unintended or runaway messages get the best of your company.

Deb Titus, managing director of Dale Carnegie-New Hampshire, will be discussing the topic of communication during turbulent times at a two-hour seminar on May 21 and a one-hour webinar on May 27. For more information, e-mail deb.titus@dalecarnegie.com or visit nh.dalecarnegie.com.