Avoiding the Pitfalls of Communication in Uncertain Time

“We must expect to be misunderstood.  We must expect to misunderstand.”  Kenneth G.  Johnson, a communications specialist made this assertion long ago.  If this is true in everyday communication, difficult times magnify the problem.  Consequently, leaders need to be sensitive to the things their team members are alert to hearing when we communicate.

As a leader, you may decide to upgrade efficiency.  This can include shuffling some people around, putting people in better “seats on the bus” to improve performance.  Because humans are wired to pay attention when things change, they will be tuned in when you communicate about those changes.  The problem is WHAT they are thinking about when you propose these changes.

Dr. David Rock created the SCARF model to help describe the kinds of communications that can stimulate hyper-vigilance in people.  Leaders must be mindful of their message because what people hear may easily overshadow the leader’s intended meaning.  Long before they can process the features and benefits of the proposed reorganization, team members are likely to run through a bundle of (typically) unasked questions.  When team members hear these messages, their “threat surveillance system” scans for clues and cues that can imperil their situation or help them move forward. Dr. Rock’s model describes 5 areas of particular emphasis.

People are concerned first about their STATUS – will mine be affected, diminished in any way? How will other people perceive it?  Any whiff of a reduction in status will create defensiveness and justifications.   In that moment, the team member on the receiving end stops listening and immediately begins formulating reasons why the change shouldn’t happen.  Any potential benefits evaporate in the face of the passive resistance that will surely follow. 

The next category is one of CERTAINTY – Am I clear on what I am expected to do?  People want to know what they need to do to succeed and what is necessary to avoid failure.  Ambiguity or confusion leads to uncertainty and hesitation on the part of the team member.  In today’s competitive world, the last thing organizations need is to slow down execution because the leader failed to provide clear expectations.  

Following that is AUTONOMY – if I am clear on what I am supposed to do and I have the necessary skills, will I have the room to do my job on my own or will someone be breathing down my neck, “sweating the money?”  Nothing triggers our threat surveillance radar faster than micro-management. 

The proposed changes will also cause them to seek RELATEDNESS – how will this affect the rest of my team?  Is this something that will benefit the team and we can all support?  Something that isn’t focused on the team as a whole will cause additional resistance. 

Lastly, is there a sense of FAIRNESS – Is this just for a short-term personal gain or is it connected to something greater than themselves? Studies have repeatedly shown that team members respond more constructively when they can feel connected to something greater than themselves and that they contribution is to a larger purpose.  A positive example of this occurred when Winston Churchill needed to present grim news to his country, said to them, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Armed with this awareness, leaders can craft their message so that they address these concerns.  If the proposed change does indeed fall afoul of one of these items, the leader must take the time to explain the “why” and make a compelling case.  Most people are willing to deal with negative news if there is a reservoir of trust that the leader has built up and is impeccably straight with the receivers about the situation and its reasons.  If the change can be a plus for all, it is particularly important to cover each of the items clearly so that team members can see and understand the benefits.  Covering these issues first enables the leader to move to the features and benefits of the proposed change in a way that all can listen and focus on the objectives presented.

Good news or bad news, whenever leaders seek to create change, especially in challenging times, it is particularly important to think of Dr. Rock’s SCARF model to ensure that the message is properly received.


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