No Safety – No Performance: How to Communicate During Chaos

Restructuring, rightsizing, employee rebalancing…regardless of what you call it, layoffs are tough on every employee. Either you are a target now, or you could be a target later. When a company is willing to let people go, no one feels safe.

That’s a key word: ‘Safe’. When employees don’t feel safe there is a noticeable decrease in risk-taking. Risk of failure means risk of being a target for punishment. Broadly speaking, as safety decreases, anxiety goes up and performance goes down.

Deutsche Bank’s recent strategic failures left employees feeling unsafe. Layoffs were expected. Journalists reported that employees were just waiting for announcements about who would be leaving. Managers sent people home early while they waited. No one was working anyway.

So what do you do when fear shuts down performance?

1. Tell them what you know.

Well, duh. When there is chaos at work, it’s amazing how many leaders forget to update their employees along the way. Expect to repeat the same answers multiple times. Nervousness makes people forget or disbelieve. Consistency is reassuring.

2. Tell them what you don’t know.

Why would you do that?? Because it stops people from seeking answers that don’t exist. That’s why fake news exists – people want answers and will draw it from anywhere that sounds legitimate. Leaders must stand up as the sole authority of information and advise where decisions are still being made.

3. Tell them when you will tell them.

Because there are always unanswered questions, give them a date at which they can either expect an answer, or an update. #2 does not work without #3.

When everything feels like chaos, making the future a bit more predictable has a significant impact. Feeling like the world is out of control is unsettling for everyone. Creating a schedule for communications places structure – a form of control – within the chaos. Think of it like a roadmap for answers. It gives people something to look forward to; even a sense of hope.

During challenging change, every word will be scrutinized (ref. 5 Signals of Leaders). Choose them carefully. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you do have to clearly identify when they will be coming.

Thoughtfully yours,

Jeff Skipper

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Jeff Skipper
Jeff Skipper is an expert in accelerating change. Clients such as Shell, Goldman Sachs and The Salvation Army have engaged him to achieve dramatic results during strategic transformation by wrapping complex change in motivating mission. He has been quoted in Fast Company, Forbes and HP’s enterprise.nxt. Jeff holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and is a Certified Change Management Professional.