How communicators help employees navigate leadership changes

Smart and strategic messaging can right the ship.

In the world of work, it’s inevitable that leadership will change over time. When an organization isn’t prepared with the proper communications strategies and flows from the top of a company or department, confusion can take root can create negative effects across the board.

With this in mind, we spoke with seasoned communications experts about how comms pros can keep the message steady and on track when leadership changes happen.

Consistency and getting ahead of questions

When leaders leave their posts, there are much deeper impacts than how the org chart looks. Employee relationships and perception of leaders can be critical to a positive employee experience and sense of psychological safety. , Mary Beth McCloy, director of corporate communications at Goddard Systems, emphasizes that consistency and transparency is key to keeping things steady during any major organizational change

“People want to understand the reasoning behind major decisions, and it behooves an organization to explain the thought process behind the change, if possible, in their communications,” McCloy said. “If you want to control the narrative, don’t leave gaps for people to fill it in themselves with their own explanations.”

It’s also essential to anticipate what questions might come from employees. By getting ahead of what queries they may have on changes, you can assuage fears that might creep into employees’ minds about what the implications of such a change might be on their role.

“When change occurs, it’s natural for people to immediately worry about the implications for themselves,” explained McCloy, “so proactively addressing how the shift will impact them is key to crafting effective and timely communication.”

The right tools in the toolbelt

It’s one thing to know what interpersonal issues are in play when a leadership change occurs. But it’s entirely another to know what tools and processes will be effective in making the transition go smoothly.

According to Annalisa Bluhm, vice president, CEO and leadership communications at Northrop Grumman, trust is one of the most effective things that communicators have at their disposal to foster impactful comms during times (the same precept applies to new leaders).

“The standard has never been higher for leaders at every level,” Bluhm said.

“Competing interests, overwhelming e-mail boxes and endless group chats, coupled with industry demands for higher production with greater quality make it difficult for leaders to rise above the churn.”

So how can comms help cut through the noise? It’s all about learning the motivations and preferred comms styles and methods of your team. Bluhm points to Gallup’s Strength Finders assessment as a good example of this.

“Leaders often rush to problem-solving or start conversations with their expectations,” she said “It’s important for communicators to help build trust and co-create a working environment that brings the best out of everyone.”

Adjusting based on the situation

 Communicating through a leadership change isn’t a one-size-fits-all issue — different employees in different roles and functions can have distinct concerns. That’s why, empathizing with your employees and customizing your communication accordingly is key.

“The biggest, most important thing is to put yourself into your employee’s shoes and think about the first three concerns/thoughts you’d have if you were receiving the news,” said Cath Anderson, senior vice president of communications at Cityblock.

When the message of change comes down, it’s important to deliver it on the right channel, at the right time, with the right words. Anderson added that flexibility is of paramount importance for communicators in these situations.

“Adjust depending on the circumstances,” she said. “the departure of a senior leader with less company-wide visibility may not warrant this full plan, but scale up or down depending.”

It’s also a good idea to give employees time to process change.

“Once you’ve taken time to address the news, give it a day or two buffer before returning to business as usual,” Anderson said. “Get people excited about what’s next and the work at hand!”

Making time for goodbyes

Focusing not just on the incoming leader but on the outgoing one is an often overlooked part of the leadership transition.

“While it is sometimes hard for an organization to announce that an individual is leaving, especially after many years, it is important to allow for time for goodbyes and well wishes,” McCloy said.

“It diminishes trust in an organization and leadership when employees or leaders suddenly disappear with no notice.”

In this situation, communicators can facilitate messages and questions from employees to outgoing leaders, which can help to build that all-important trust.

“When possible, offer opportunities for employees to leave anecdotes and well wishes via an online message board or organize an in-person farewell gathering for long-tenured employees.

“Change is always challenging,” said McCloy, “but offering the opportunity to process the change can go a long way in building trust and enhancing communication.”

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.

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