I know I’m guilty of occasionally waxing loquacious and using polysyllabic words to create an aura of intelligence around my posts. More likely than not I’m doing this to overcompensate for watching too many cartoons every day. For a blog, those word choices can be fine (although Brian Clark at Copyblogger would kick my butt for saying that). Other times, flowery or evasive words are the WORST ones you can use as a leader.
I read an article in Fortune the other day where they laid out some snippets of spin from companies going through difficult times. Many of these companies are laying people off. That’s understandable and acceptable. I actually salute leaders who have the intestinal fortitude to make difficult choices like that.
It gets problematic though when the spin doctors are brought in. Bad things happen.
Have you ever been in the difficult role of telling people they’re being laid off? Or that something bad has happened at your company? It’s incredibly hard to do.
The aforementioned Fortune article discussed one solution. Some of the companies profiled brought in “corporate communication specialists” to “craft the message” (I’m not kidding). Instead of “firing people” the companies were “simplifying their business” or “streamlining their operations.” One even said they were “boosting their ability to compete.”
Pardon me while I barf in my socks.
Why do companies do this? Because bad news is hard to convey and we feel bad about ourselves when we do it. To soften that pain, we mince words and use foofy adjectives. News flash – that approach is terrible.
Why? Your people already know someone (maybe even them) is getting canned. When you waltz in using the newest trinkets from Thesaurus.com, you appear aloof and disingenuous. They certainly don’t trust you after you do that.
What do I recommend? Speak plainly. The news sucks. There’s no changing it. Be up front about it as a leader. That’s your obligation. Tell them what you know and don’t mince words.
I had the “privilege” of announcing a layoff once. There was a “corporate script.” I “accidentally” forgot it on my desk before I went to the announcement meeting. I had to “improvise.” It went something like this:
“The market is difficult and our current cost structure is too high. We have to reduce headcount dramatically to deliver on our financial goals. Waiting for attrition won’t get us there nor will productivity gains. Given that, we’re announcing a reduction in force of XXXX people effective today. I’ll get you any and all further information as soon as it’s available to me.”
That was probably one of the most difficult minutes of my life. Guess what though? They understood. It was clear and precise. No foofiness.
I had coffee with a friend the other day. He’s facing a similar challenge. We discussed foofy words like “competitive restructuring” and “simplification.” I’m pretty sure he’s going with the “I don’t like to do this but I have to reduce headcount” approach. A simple and straightforward message will serve him well when he delivers that bad news.
You’re the leader. Sometimes you have to do hard things. Be plain in your speech and explanations. Your people will respect you for doing so.
What experiences have you had with “straightforward” versus “evasive and foofy?” How did those situations turn out?