One of the most difficult challenges for leaders is to somehow motivate and inspire their followers in times of great challenge. If you go too “positive,” then you seem disconnected or manipulative. If you go too “negative,” then you can remove whatever positive energy might be in the room. To get it right, leaders have to balance honesty and transparency with optimism and hope. Here’s how you can do this:
ground as soon as possible. The challenge is that it has to be real common ground. One of my favorite coaching-moments (in a sad kind of way) was with an executive who was planning in his speech to show the willingness of him and his executive colleagues to also be inconvenienced by austerity measures. His plan was to tell them that the leaders would no longer fly in business class domestically or first class internationally. This would have been fine had he been speaking to other executives. To the front line employees, this was at best meaningless and at worst laughable. They were dealing with feeding their families and the leaders were going to give up some leg room. You don’t have to claim that you are suffering financial hardship…you just need to show me that you understand where I’m coming from.
2. “This is important to me.” Once you have related to your audience, let them know the topic you are speaking on is important to you. Don’t just say it is…provide the evidence. Let people know why this topic is crucial enough for you to take their time and give yours to speak on it. The more you can relate the topic to personal importance and not just business importance, the more effective you will be.
3. “You are the key to success.” Don’t mislead or lie to your followers about this, but if you truly believe that your employees are the difference between success and failure, tell them so. If you want to engage your audience, show them how YOU see them in the grand scheme of things. Be thoughtful about your mental image of how employees fit into the picture. One of the most revealing statements many leaders use is “Our employees are our greatest asset.” First, this is not necessarily a complement since assets depreciate and are replaced frequently when they are obsolete. Second, it’s not a personal statement, it’s a cliché. Specifically state the way in which your followers make a difference.
4. “Because you are so important, you have a great responsibility.” If followers are so important, then
it is fair to say that they also have responsibility. There is nothing wrong with reminding people that their
decisions and actions can make or break the future. Engaging employees has nothing to do with how hard YOU have been working or how much YOU care about the topic. If you have established already that it is important to you, you can then focus on what is important to the rest of us…us. The important issue here is that you first have to establish our role and then you can remind us that we are accountable.
5. “Work with me on this.” With all of that said, one of the biggest mistakes leaders make at the end of a presentation such as this is that they avoid stating their expectations of their followers in a big picture and “adult” manner. While it is not uncommon for the leader to end with a reaffirmation that everybody needs to cut costs or everybody needs to create more customer contacts, what is missing is a conclusion that supports the respect that was shown during the rest of the presentation. Yes, there might be initiatives or tasks that need to be taken on by everybody. But remember that your followers have brains and emotions about your organization as well. If nothing else, make “work with me on this” an invitation for them to create even more effective and better ideas than the ones you are implementing.
If you are authentic about your feelings toward your people and you are sincere about wanting open and productive conversation, following a plan similar to the one above can help you achieve your communication objective. The bonus tip here is to make sure that somebody else, preferably from the lower levels of the organization, has a chance to give you feedback on your planned message before you give it. It may be that there are areas where you are not connecting that are hidden from you. At the very least, get feedback after the presentation. Communication with your team, department or company is a process that never actually ends. Focusing on your process with the idea of constant improvement will serve you well as you lead your people in times of uncertainty.