Communicating big news to your team
As a manager, you’ve probably already been responsible for communicating a message from senior leadership to your team. Maybe you’ve had to give them a heads-up about company policy changes like a new performance review process, scary news like a reorg, or happy news like bonuses.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself in windowless conference rooms participating in the decision-making process before the news is shared. This is both an honor and a burden. Sure, you get access to information before everyone else does, but you’re now also responsible for making sure that as people hear the news, it lands effectively and clearly, with as little disruption as possible.
For most of us, this is an incredibly stressful and difficult process.
Whether it’s news that will impact your team directly, or news that will only affect folks elsewhere in your organization, you’ll need to practice your skills around empathy, clear communication, patience, and feedback. In this newsletter, I’ve included a few tips on preparing and honing these skills.
Develop a communications plan
Deepa Subramaniam refers to communications plans as a “tick tock doc”, which I adore. Document who is going to be saying what, in which medium, when, and to which group of people.
Share this document with everyone who will be responsible for communicating the message. Be sure to include talking points or key messages, so that folks have a game plan when it’s time for them to communicate. Give feedback on others’ messages/key talking points, to help make sure they land well. This will help keep messages consistent and effective as the news gets rolled out.
Alongside this doc, I recommend coming up with good answers to the questions that are likely to come up as the news gets shraed. Don’t pretend that people will react with silence and agreement, or that folks will only push back or ask questions in private settings. Prepare for the hot takes, and the pointed and blameful public questions!
I also recommend documenting any new, surprising questions that come up as the news is shared, and sharing those questions/answers with anyone else who is participating in the communication rollout—so they can see what folks on other teams are asking, and prepare themselves.
Be patient: this is still brand new for others
When I coach managers and leaders through this stuff, one of the common sticking points is: what amount of unproductivity is permissible after folks hear big, scary company news?
Everyone digests news differently, processes change differently, and grieves differently. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your teammates will recover quickly from learning about upcoming changes; it can take a surprising amount of time, even if they’re not directly impacted by the news. Why?
Humans have 6 core needs at work (my fav acronym for them is BICEPS). In my blog post on desk moves, I walk through how the same stimulus can trigger any of these six core needs—and sometimes multiple at once—in different people. What’s threatening or scary for you might not be the same for your teammates—it’ll be important for you to be patient as they react in surprising ways to this new information.
Remember: you have known it’s coming for a while. But your teammates didn’t. It’s very likely that you’ll feel like their decreased productivity and focus is going on for far too long; after all, you’re starting to feel okay about it! Count back to the first time you heard about this upcoming change or big piece of news, way before the first talking point was written or comms plan was drafted. How long has it actually taken for you to process and eventually regroup?
Of course, at some point, their decreased productivity could become a problem. When their inactivity or grumpiness begins to have a measurable effect on deadlines or their other teammates, it’s time to talk with them.
Share the observable, quantifiable impact of their behavior. How is it affecting the team, or the work? Avoid judgments and assumptions; stick to the facts. (If there are no facts/quantifiable impacts, and this is just about how you feel about their attitude or lack of productivity: don’t have this conversation. It isn’t time yet.)
Talk through how else you/them/the team can meet the goal, and do the work. How can you help? How movable is the deadline? What do they need? Only come down hard when productivity decreases are causing measurable problems (not just when you feel like people should be back to normal).
Lean on your Manager Voltron
It’s not all that healthy to deal with rolling out big, heavy news solo.
Round up folks in your manager crew (or manager Voltron) and lean on them as you navigate this process. Sometimes they’ll need to be people who are already in-the-know about the news; othertimes, you might be able to lean on someone in confidence whom you trust to keep this information a secret. Obviously, be judicious as you lean on others during a tricky communications plan rollout.
If you can, find people who:
- can give you feedback on messaging/wordsmithing, to make sure the news lands effectively
- can provide alternative perspectives on how people will receive the news, so you’re prepared for lots of different outcomes or reactions
- can give you space to process your feelings about the changes
- can support you after the news is announced and you deal with any blowback, teammate emotions, etc.
- can bring some levity into your day, and help you find a few moments to breathe and regroup
If you have a coach, DEFINITELY lean on them during this process! They’re there to hold space for you, and most coaches keep information like this confidential.