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Setting the Right Tone for Management Communications


February 26, 2021

In recent weeks, we’ve had several conversations with senior managers asking how to adjust the tone of their communications during the evolving covid situation.

They are conscious that they should avoid ‘overpromising and underdelivering’. On the other hand, too much focus on the difficulties of the current situation could demoralise their workforce.

In this article we look at how to choose the right tone for your communications and deliver them effectively. And we explore the lessons we can learn from the UK government’s covid crisis communications.

The problems we face

It has been a tough year for our emotions – swinging from wild optimism to despair in the blink of an eye.

For leaders, it can be a challenge to set the right tone when communicating with their team.

Do they jolly everyone along on a tide of positivity, running the risk of crashing back to the shore? Or do they adopt a more downbeat tone, potentially demotivating their workforce?

One thing is for certain, at times of crisis leaders need to lead, to inspire. To do this, their approach to communicating with their employees needs to constantly adapt to the changing situation.

How Boris Johnson has communicated during the covid pandemic

One of the leaders we have all become more familiar with in the past year is Boris Johnson. It’s interesting to observe how his approach altered as the covid crisis progressed.

Back in February and early March 2020 he was definitely in “ra ra” mode. Promoting a message of hope that we would overcome the threat of covid and on a mission to bolster an already wavering economy, with the sheer force of his optimism.

In stark contrast came his tone in late March, when the first lockdown was announced. This came as a shock to most, in part due to such a dramatic shift in the tone of the Prime Minister’s communications. Cue panic buying and toilet roll shortages.

By the second lockdown in the autumn, the communication strategy had completely changed. Keeping the public up to date with facts and figures, accompanied by expert analysis, meant that everyone was fully informed about the situation.

The information was presented clearly and simply, without feeling ‘dumbed down’. Questions were fielded from the public, allowing everyone to feel that a little of their own situation was being taken into account. Where the government didn’t have an answer they were, mostly, transparent about why that was.

While a few unwise promises were made (“You can see your family for Christmas” and “Schools will remain open” spring to mind), these were the exception to the rule.

This doesn’t mean that the tone changed to one of complete pessimism, far from it. Through the fog of despair, the government made it clear that there was a path out of this, thanks to the vaccination programme. This was presented with cautious optimism, again backed up by facts and figures, alongside expert analysis.

What can we learn from the government’s covid communications?

There are some useful takeaways here which can be of benefit to leaders in many organisations:

Realism is important, even if it isn’t what people want to hear.
If you disguise the truth, you take away people’s ability to prepare – both practically and emotionally.

Consider your audience when presenting the facts of your situation.
Don’t dumb down, but do make sure they are presented clearly.

While your leadership is critical at times like this,
consider that you might not always be the best person to communicate every message.
Bring in experts when you need to.

Give people the opportunity to ask questions,
even if these are challenging to answer.

Be cautiously optimistic, but be clear about your reasons for optimism.
Don’t just say “don’t worry, it’ll be fine”.
Explain your reasoning and the steps you are taking to facilitate a good outcome.

Choosing the tone for your communications

Reading the room

It can be too easy for leaders to get tied up in day to day activities and productivity targets, forgetting about the human beings which are delivering this work.

Consider the bigger picture within your organisation and how this is impacting your people:

  • The rapid changes which employees are dealing with.
  • The constant disruption to their working practices.
  • The continuing need to adapt to new circumstances and new business priorities.

Recognise the rollercoaster of emotions this will produce and that each individual will deal with it differently.

Make sure you keep tabs on personal situations. Put time aside to speak to your team members informally, to check how they are.

You might want to ask them:

  • How are you?
  • Are you enjoying the work you’re doing?
  • Do you have everything you need for work?
  • Is there anything worrying you at the moment?
  • Can we do anything to make this easier for you?

If you have carried out personality assessments in the past, such as Insights Colours or MBTI, this could give you valuable information about how your team process and react to change. Now would be a good time to review that output.

‘Reading the room’ in this way will give you essential guidance for setting the right tone for communications and therefore making them more effective.

Preparing your communications

A little preparation goes a long way, regardless of the topic or perceived importance of your communication.

Consider the message you want to put across and, most importantly, how this will be received by the person or people you are communicating it to. Reflecting on how your audience will react will enable you to adapt your communications and improve the likelihood that you will get the outcome you need.

Ensure you are realistic in what you communicate. Don’t hide the negatives, it will make people worry about what else you are hiding. Equally, make sure that you balance them with positive plans of action and cautious optimism.

Check that you have all the facts of the matter to hand and that these are presented in a way that is appropriate to your audience. Be prepared for questions that might be asked. If appropriate, have an expert with you to help explain details and deal with questions – don’t feel that you need to have all the answers yourself.

Giving your audience an idea about the tone of the meeting beforehand can help them to arrive with the right mindset. Read our article on the 3 Essential Management Habits for 2021 for more on this.

Delivering your communications

Now more than ever it is important to plan and consider your communications. However, it’s equally important to be authentically yourself when you deliver them. Your team want the ‘real you’.

If you are delivering the message over Zoom, there is no reason why you shouldn’t stand to do so, as you would face to face. This will naturally give you more dynamism and impact, plus your ability to gesticulate more freely will help to keep your audience’s attention.

Don’t be afraid to bring a sense of fun or (Boris-like) joviality to the communication, if the subject matter suits it. But only if you have read the room and believe your team will be receptive to a little light-heartedness.

Assuming it’s appropriate, welcome questions. Listen carefully and respond as openly, empathetically and honestly as you can. If a question is asked which you don’t have the answer to, or don’t want to commit an answer to right now, say so and explain why. Don’t try to bluster your way through it.

However well you planned and however balanced your tone, be prepared to be met with an unfavourable response. People are under huge pressures at the moment, at work and at home, so don’t be surprised if you get a disproportionately negative reaction. You need to remain understanding, calm and authentic – remembering that you are setting the standard for future interactions.

On the flip side, don’t assume that a lack of questions or immediate response is the same as agreement. Silence might simply indicate that your audience is processing what you have told them. Not saying “no” is not the same as saying “yes”. Having a question prepared can help deal with a silent response, for example “Paul, you look deep in thought. Would you be happy to share your initial reaction?”.

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