Communicating the Hard Messages During Times of Change

By Kathy Miller on July 9th, 2013


Most of us really don’t like change. While we may welcome some slight breaks from the status quo, very few of us readily embrace change. Sure, we believe in its importance for others. I’m reminded of an executive who told me that he believed in the necessity of change within his organization as long as he didn’t have to do it!

Nevertheless, all of us must face change from time to time, and many of us must lead it. Most of us feel ambivalent, at best, in the face of change. Self-insight concerning our ambivalence is necessary if we are to lead change successfully. Mixed feelings about personal changes that we must make can result in avoidance of the hard stuff, or dysfunctional actions such as passive-aggressive behaviors.

In my consulting role, I have seen executives shirk their responsibilities and delegate the hard tasks to others. Avoiding the tough tasks, such as communicating hard messages, undermines their effectiveness as leaders. They come to be seen as weak throughout their organizations. Yet people long for strong leadership.

Can we eliminate ambivalence entirely in order to lead more effectively? Probably not. However, we can still step up to the plate in times of change. Leaders, examine your own discomfort and plan ways to avoid the pitfalls that come with ambivalence. Make a few basic commitments that will see you through the tough spots. For example, vow to communicate directly and clearly to the organization no matter what your own level of discomfort. Resolve to communicate with respect and compassion. Avoiding telling the truth because of the possible personal fallout is disrespectful. Engaging in passive-aggressive  behavior as an alternative to direct communications is dysfunctional. Likewise communicating hard messages without sensitivity to the impact on others is disrespectful.

Lead with integrity. Do not lie to others for any reason. Of course, during times of change, we may not be able to tell everyone everything that is going on all the time. Nevertheless, we should share what we can and not shirk from delivering both good news and bad when necessary. A leader with integrity will not hide from communicating the truth due to his or her discomfort.

Leadership requires wisdom and courage. As the New Year begins, resolve to become the kind of leaders that make others want to follow you through the tough times of change.