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Stephanie Morgan Why communication is key for leading through uncertain times (and what it means for L&D)

Why Communication Is Key For Leading Through Uncertain Times 26 6 19 Wide

If there’s one word that sums up the current climate for me, it must be ‘uncertain’. Commonly described as ‘VUCA’ (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), it is an environment of rapid change, disruption and instability.  

These uncertain times impact us all, both at work and in our personal lives. When there is change afoot at work, people will look to the organisation’s leaders to give them reassurance and confidence in the stability of the business.

This means leaders at all levels have an incredibly important role in navigating their organisations through change. If they can come across as genuine, confident and human, they will go a long way towards creating a resilient, positive workforce that can manage and even embrace change.

At the heart of this is effective communication from leaders.

It’s no coincidence that, in a recent survey of senior executives, they rated communication-based soft skills as the most important in leadership: listening, interpersonal skills and verbal communication.

The good news is that communication is a skill you can learn. The onus is therefore on us in L&D to ensure that our leaders – CEOs, senior managers, line managers and supervisors – can communicate effectively.  

But it goes further than communicating top-down change initiatives.  

So let’s dig a little deeper into the wider benefits effective communication can bring, especially during periods of uncertainty.

Build trust

People now hold more trust in their employer than any other institution – more than the government or the media. As Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer showed, this places huge responsibility on leaders to cultivate trust to firm up the employer-employee relationship.

Employees describe a trustworthy leader as someone who can ‘speak like a regular person’ and talk openly about their own experiences. So being human, honest and down-to-earth can build bridges between leaders and employees.

This means leaving complex, flowery language out of talks and also being aware of non-verbal cues like body language and eye contact (more on that here).

Trust is more important than ever in this VUCA climate, and it starts with relatable communication. 

Create united cultures

A united employer-employee relationship founded on trust can create a more engaged workforce, with greater loyalty and commitment to the business. In the long run, this will bring countless benefits, as dedicated employees who buy into the company’s vision will have the necessary resilience and motivation to cope in times of change.

If your leaders can communicate in a relatable way that speaks to employees on their terms, it can help to create a shared sense of purpose in the long run, driving commitment to the future direction of the business. Because this is likely to change in unpredictable ways at short notice, a reassuring voice that shows empathy towards the upheaval employees may be facing is so important. 

But it’s not all about talking; listening is just as important. By having informal conversations with employees, leaders and managers can get to know their people as individuals. This will leave leaders better prepared to communicate in a way that resonates with employees, ensuring their message is tailored to the needs of the workforce by addressing the specific challenges they are facing – and outlining how they can be overcome.  

Overcome silos

One of the main obstacles CEOs face in developing a successful change strategy for the modern workplace are organisational silos.

Silos can be especially harmful during times of change, restricting knowledge and skills to confined segments of the business that hold back progress.

To help counteract organisational silos, leaders may want to consider applying ‘systems thinking’, and work with L&D teams to recognise the connections between each department before forming them into a unified view of the whole business.

Leaders who can communicate this vision well will be able to prepare their organisation to cope with change – and help create united cultures where individuals are eager to share their expertise. 

Attract future talent

It’s not just current employees who are affected by leaders’ ability to communicate effectively, but the workforce of the future too.  

Younger generations want to work for organisations that are committed to broader industry, employee, social and political issues like equal pay, diversity and climate change.

So, if your leaders can speak out confidently and authoritatively on these types of issues in public – and that includes on social media – your organisation’s reputation will rise dramatically among the future workforce.  

What this means for L&D

As L&D teams are becoming more and more recognised as drivers of business performance, there is a huge opportunity for L&D leaders to become positive change agents.

One of the biggest ways you can contribute it to take a forensic approach, becoming the eyes and ears of your organisation by getting to know your people and culture inside out, and relaying your insights to senior stakeholders. You could, for example, pair data from employee surveys with more informal, day-to-day observations of your workforce to build up a comprehensive picture, leaving your leaders better prepared to communicate with people on their terms.

Alternatively, if you don’t feel that your organisation has the right level of communications expertise to do this effectively, you may want to consider developing communication skills. Creating communication-focussed learning could be the answer; a blend of digital and face-to-face can be particularly effective in cultivating this uniquely human skill.

Whatever your approach, your leaders will be relying on you as a valued business partner to help them navigate these uncertain times.

Communication may just be the missing piece of the jigsaw.

*      *      *

Do you want to develop your leaders’ communication skills? Have a look at our Communication Skills course, which can be customised to suit your organisation – and even included as part of a Leadership Development programme.

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Stephanie Morgan FLPI, Director of Learning Solutions, Bray Leino Learning

Sharing ideas and observations to help improve performance.

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