Most people would agree that good communication skills are important but are too often neglected. One of the factors that sets exceptional leaders at all levels of an organization apart is their ability to convey ideas and news effectively, especially when their message is part of a difficult conversation.
During the most recent economic downturn, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute had to reduce over 100 staff positions. It was the first layoff in the organization’s history, and it was a challenging time.
Dana-Farber was scheduled to send out employee satisfaction surveys just two weeks after the layoffs. Understandably, leaders in the organization were worried about what they would hear. Many thought this was the wrong time to seek feedback.
After a lot of discussion, Dana-Farber leadership decided they would go ahead with sending out the survey as scheduled. The compelling comment was, “We should want to hear from staff when things are tough, not just when things are great.” They sincerely wanted to get feedback from the staff about what they thought of the layoff process and how they were dealing with the aftermath. Much to the surprise of everyone, when they got the responses to the survey, the hospital scored 98 percent on employee engagement.
How did this happen?
Focus on Why, Not What
The most essential thing Dana-Farber’s CEO did was tell the truth about why the layoffs were necessary.
In remarks given in a large auditorium and simultaneously webcast to every employee’s computer, Dana-Farber’s CEO, Ed Benz, MD, explained why the layoff was needed and how it would happen. With respect and transparency, the entire leadership team was authentic about what it felt like to make such a hard, but necessary choice for the survival of the organization.
Managers often lead with what is going to happen. “We’re going to change the parking policy.” “We’re going to change the employee benefit plan.”
We focus on the what, and often fail to explain the why. For example, Nationwide Children’s Hospital had a monthly meeting during which the managers heard about all major announcements. The managers were then expected to convey these messages to their employees. But the staff engagement survey showed that employees felt that communication was poor.
During further exploration, over half of the managers reported that they never went back to their departments and reported the announcements. When asked for the reasons, the managers consistently said, “You tell us what you are doing, but not why.” One of them said, “No one in the monthly management meeting challenges leadership about why they make these decisions, but the housekeepers in my department won’t hesitate to ask me. Frankly, you haven’t prepared me to answer their questions.”
Arm the people who are going to translate your message throughout your organization with an understanding of not just what is happening, but also why it’s happening. For example, make sure you link change to how it’s going to benefit patients and families.
Often, we create our own interpretations of events unless we hear credible explanations. As a leader, if you don’t put your decisions into context, people may make up their own stories about the reasons for them.
Components of Respectful Communication
Respectful communication requires active listening. It means listening more than talking. Look people in the eye and try to understand where the other person is coming from.
To communicate effectively, leaders must also be:
- Honest — People need to believe the person sharing information is authentic and truthful. Trust is based on honesty.
- Consistent — Your message must be constant over time and place. It’s also helpful to have a cadence to how and when you communicate.
- Timely — Leaders need to get ahead of the rumor mill. Present your message to key audiences before other stories have a chance to spread.
- Clear — Explain the situation in language that connects the dots between what you are doing and your organization’s mission to provide outstanding care to patients and families. Don’t assume staff will see the connections.
Janet Porter, MBA, PhD, teaches at the University of Miami, Ohio State University, the University of North Carolina, and Harvard University. She is also faculty for IHI’s Leading Quality Improvement: Essentials for Managers virtual program that starts on February 11, 2020.
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