As the dual pandemics of coronavirus and social upheaval over systemic racism rage across the globe, local government employees are faced with ever more frequent and critical communications. Administrators face challenges related to reopening or reclosing, changing social norms, disruptive political hubris, conflicting data, and unparalleled, yet necessary, operational changes. Effective communication must be used to cut through the noise to change behaviors, reinforce values, and establish new cultural norms.
If you are a first-time administrator or a seasoned professional, a critical leadership practice for maintaining trusting relationships with employees and citizens is good communication skills. Unfortunately, most people are not born communicators but this is a learnable skillset.
For the greatest impact, the starting point is improving the quality of your communications based on insights from behavioral science. As a leader, if you want people to respond differently, you will need to assess how you can communicate more effectively. Here are 10 communication tips to consider.
Tip #1: Make It Simple.
In today’s fast-paced media cycle and short attention spans, the complexity of your communication has a significant impact on whether or not your message lands well. Use plain and specific language and say what you mean. Avoid jargon and be clear what the “ask” is if seeking action. Use headings for people to navigate the written information. Make key points stand out, use bullet points, and repeat critical points for emphasis. Hashtags should clearly highlight message content (#WEWEARIT4U).
Tip #2: Make It Critical.
Make a clear case for change. For chief executives, often this may mean simply clearly articulating that an issue is important to you and requires priority attention. If it’s important, say “this is important.”
As busy people skim content, certain elements also serve as visual flags, like design elements and call-to-action words. Using a person’s name is also effective.
Tip #3: Honest Authenticity.
Being authentic and trustworthy is increasingly necessary in a distrusting world. Vagueness in communications creates fear and leads to distrust
Sincere storytelling is powerful way of being authentic. Humans have developed a capacity to pay attention and remember stories more effectively than content. Character-driven stories with emotional content results in better understanding of other’s experiences and key facts.
Vulnerability should be used as a humanizing factor in executive communication. “This has been a difficult decision for me” will help win points rather than be a sign of weakness.
Tip #4: Timeliness Is Key.
Effective communication relies on timing. Communicating early in an effort can help you bring people on board and engage them. But you can communicate too much too early (creating fear, anxiety, or apathy) or you can communicate too late (creating resentment, mistrust, and confusion). People are most receptive to communication when they can take an immediate action, even if it is only asking questions or giving feedback. Therefore, if you want to involve people early in problem-solving, do so in a conversational format even if in a group or community conversation. Break complex processes or multiyear efforts into understandable defined stages meaningful to your audience. Once people commit to something smaller, they are more likely to say yes to greater challenges for the long-haul.
Tip #5: Use Context for Sense-making.
A role for executives in times of societal transition and crisis is as sense-maker, one who explains the complexity surrounding individual experiences and impacts. Truly successful communications bring order to the environmental noise and create a framework for understanding everything else they’re hearing in the organization. Team conversations about the context of the current environment, the realities they face, and how values will consistently shape our response can be a powerful technique for getting everyone on the same page.
The key is creating a consistent worldview that underlies the organizational response. Faced with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance from multiple messages (“we are focused on defunding the police department” but “officer safety is our top priority”), people may simply ignore your message as rhetoric. But if you eliminate the dissonance with consistency and coherent messaging (“we need to better fund social services so our police are not endangered on mental health and domestic abuse calls”), it might be less threatening.
Tip #6: Relate To Your Audience.
“What is in it for me’ is a basic human motivator. Call out specifically what change may mean to an individual and explain how his or her personal interests were taken into account, because that is what makes people supportive of change or intrusive actions, such as wearing a mask to prevent coronavirus upon returning to work. “We wear a mask to protect your health and mine.”
Tip #7: Personalize It.
Research shows people are more likely to retain surveys when a handwritten Post -It note is attached. Making it personal does not mean it must involve having a face-to-face communication. A hand-written note scribbled legibly on a form letter or simply using your name on a directive signal you’ve personally prioritized the message and they should, too. People are more likely to read a note from a CAO than a generic human resource announcement or corporate newsletter. This impact is multiplied when containing testimonial or personal narrative on a reason to act, such as, “I have seen the poverty myself.”
Tip #8: Engage the Audience.
Solutions presented in communications may be challenged by the audience; solutions the audience co-creates are likely to become their own. Consider communicating early with an intent to foster a “design-build” reopened workplace by framing a campaign around ‘Help us to design our future workspace.” Look for genuine opportunities to incorporate two-way feedback through meetings or social media, then link the change implemented to that feedback or show employees or citizens in photos engaged at all levels and stages of the creation process, whether for a new park or new policing program.
Tip #9: Language Matters.
Words have power. Words chosen carefully and spoken by leaders will support or impede development of organizational cultures and behaviors. Behavioral science continues to reveal how language affects behavior and your communications can benefit from framing messages with proper language and nuance. People may see a COVID spike that has “killed 1,286 people out of 10,000 people” scarier than one that is expressed as a “morality rate of 24.14 %” despite the percentage reference being twice as much as the numerical figures. Governments have capitalized on this knowledge to obtain tax and environmental regulatory compliance by using the power of social norms and data to communicate that most people pay their taxes, file on time, or no longer litter or dump used oil inappropriately.
Tip #10: Explicit Fairness.
In times of reorganization or cutbacks, employees need to know executives are making a sacrifice as well. In meetings on reopening, describe how operations must be transformed or workload shared. Ask for ideas on how the desired outcomes can be best achieved for all. Where negative actions are required that negatively impact customer service, be clear to inform them about why it is necessary or why the decision is out of your control (perhaps required by state law). Emphasize the value of equity and that we are all in this together.
This is a unique time for local government managers. Managers can always benefit from improving their communication skills, but in today’s environment, it is often mission critical and can literally save the lives and health of others or bring social reform and justice to all.