Communicating With the Frontline – 9 Steps That Have Been Around For 20 Years and Still Relevant

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Fifteen years into the 21st century I really believed that leaders were better at communicating major events or significant decisions to people at the frontline but over the last two weeks I have begun to rethink this position based on what I have observed going on in organisations.

When will leaders finally accept that email is not a universal answer for every situation? It is a tool of convenience open to interpretation and, if poorly written (which most are), is open to assumptions being made; crucially, it is impossible to be sure that critical meaning is being transmitted and received. Yet I saw a significant event that impacted a high number of frontline team members communicated to them in an email.

One of the most significant challenges in the digital age is that once the announcement is made to those in the frontline control is lost. Within 30 seconds of the said email being received by the team members the first tweet was in the Twittersphere and it was not complimentary.

It’s worth reminding ourselves about the core guidelines for communicating with frontline people that have been around for twenty years or more and are still relevant:

  • Communicate in person. Remember the further the leader is away from the frontline teams the more people will believe it is ‘spin’ even if it is the truth. As a general rule the person a team member believes and trusts the most is their immediate team leader. Provide team leaders with the tools and support to deliver core messages.
  • Create a communications plan so there is precise execution of each plan step. Timing is everything.
  • Don’t use video, tempting as it might be in this day and age. Video and print are really useful support tools after the message has been communicated in person.
  • Compose your messages carefully:
    • Deal only in facts.
    • Keep messages clear and concise.
    • Use language people at the frontline will understand.
  • Confirm the message and the meaning got through by randomly checking with people on the frontline on what their “takeaways” were. If the message is way off target take immediate steps to correct it.
  • Don’t fear the “rumour mill”, use it to advantage by seeding fact-based content that will be shared. Rumours are one of the fastest transmission methods known.
  • Frame out the “hot questions” and develop responses; share these with the team leaders before the announcement so their responses are consistent across teams. If you are asked questions to which you don’t know the answer, say so and don’t spin it – provide a time when an answer will be available.
  • Create clear support pathways so it is easy for people to ask questions or voice concerns post the message being delivered.
  • Be visible. If you are a leader in the organisation practice leadership by walking round.

According to a Gallup Poll published in 2015 only three in ten workers in the USA feel engaged in the job, I suspect the findings would be similar for Australia. Is it any wonder if leaders believe it’s acceptable to deliver critical messages that will impact the frontline using email?


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