Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and All the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
But maybe someone in human resources can!
I was reminded of this nursery rhyme when I received a query from an HR manager seeking advice on how to help one of her colleagues. An email announcing news of a reorganization had unsettled employees. It fell to the managers to calm everyone down and try to restore team effectiveness and performance.
This story is not unique; it happens in large and small organizations regularly. People in charge release information in ways that demonstrate a profound lack of sensitivity toward individuals and teams. The communicators, very often senior leaders, mean no harm; they are merely acting without thinking enough about what they are communicating. And so when things are communicated poorly, it falls to managers on the ground to “put Humpty together again.”
If you find yourself having to smooth over a bungled communication, here are some things you can to try to set things right.
Acknowledge the problem. People are upset and confused. You need to note their disgruntlement. To ignore it is to be as rude as the communications directive.
Apologize. Take the high road. Even if the mistake was not yours, as part of management, you should accept blame and apologize. You may express sympathy but do not throw senior management under the bus. Doing so will only make you seem like a finger-pointer.
Refocus on the reason for the communication. Explain the reason for the communication and why the initiative is necessary. This gets you past the poor delivery and focused on the business.
Allow people to express their points of view. Let them vent. Sometimes reorganizations will bring personal hardship, such as more responsibilities, lack of additional compensation, or worse — loss of a job. You are allowed to acknowledge the pain.
Refocus on the initiative. Put an end to the formal venting and refocus on the business case. Even though the communication was mishandled, the reasons for it may be sound. Stand up for the company.
Being honest, none of this is guaranteed to work. When management sends out emails announcing reorgs or initiatives without advance preparation, it sends a strong signal that people really do not matter. While such an attitude may be perceived as more acceptable in today’s tight job market, it erodes morale and confidence in senior leadership. Employees may not be able to leave immediately, but they will start to look elsewhere — at least that’s what good employees will do. In the meantime they will shift from “commitment” to “compliance,” that is, going through the motions.
Still, it falls to managers in the middle to do what they can to make things better. While you may not reverse attitudes toward the company, you can position yourself as concerned and trustworthy. This is critical when it comes to getting people focused on the task at hand as well as asking them to do more with less in these challenging times.
Doing so may allow you to achieve what all the King’s horses and men could not do — put the whole thing together again, and in doing so, earn the respect and trust of your followers.
First posted on HBR.org 12/30/2009