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Chronicles from a Caribbean Cubicle

2/25/2006

CAP: Having a Powerful Dialogue

One of the results from the study that was not so surprising was data that we collected that showed that of the different elements of the acquisition communication plans, the most fruitful was the 2-way dialogue with employees. Interestingly, a similar international study done in mostly first world countries showed that this dialogue was much less important (some 25% less agreement as to its usefulness.)

In the absence of trusted information in these acquisitions, we observed that employees had a tremendous capacity to manufacture rumours that quickly became "“fact"” in the minds of a critical number of workers. The effectiveness of 2-way dialogues to correct rumours and address anxieties cannot be under-estimated, and at the same the risks are considerable.

The CEO of one of one firm'’s clients invited several small groups of employees to attend informal breakfasts, at which he invited them to “say anything”. People began to open up over time, until his irritation at their complaints began to grow, until one morning he retorted “Don't you ever have anything good to say?” in response to one woman's poignant observation. That was the final informal breakfast he conducted.

The risks of an authentic dialogue are considerable, which is why CEOs and other executives are notably reluctant to conduct them. They can get messy, and in an acquisition situation there is often considerable anxiety. This can get translated into feelings of anger and upset, and most CEO'’s are not well trained to deal with groups of people under these circumstances. This is especially true in acquisitions, when the acquiring executives are usually elated at their financial success in landing the deal, while the employees in the target company could not feel differently.

In the Caribbean, our observation has been that more often than not in public dialogues, CEOs devolve into a kind of parental role, while their employees display varying degrees of child-like behaviour. Dialogues can then become unproductive, looking more like monologues, as the CEO plays the role of someone who can remove the anxiety, when in fact he cannot --– it is inherent in the circumstances and in her people'’s reactions to it.

However, CEOs can be trained to conduct these dialogues effectively, through a combination of personal development (many have ego-issues that only become amplified in public settings) and video-based feedback.

At that point, the dialogues become transformational, and employees and CEOs become more connected than anyone thought possible. This can occur even when the CEO has no hard information to share, but is just able to face his/her employees concerns directly, listening carefully to what is being said and leaving his/her employees with an experience of "we’ve been heard."

While these sessions can be conducted as Q&A's, at some point a CEO can develop his skill to go further than just answer questions, which is the most basic level of public dialogue. He can actually take the role of leading difficult conversations that distinguish new principles that can be used to run the company at higher level. While there are very few CEOs that are this well trained, the few that I have worked with who are, consistently generate considerable loyalty and motivation by engaging openly and publicly with his/her employees.

In acquisitions, this skill is invaluable.


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