Transparency Equals Credibility: Communicating What You Know When You Know It

Communicating is tough when the news is difficult for your audience. It’s even harder when details aren’t fully baked.

I’ve fallen victim to holding back – for example, waiting till all of the content was developed before launching an intranet site with only a few months left to go on a large-scale change project.

I look back on that experience and cringe. Sure, intranets were brand new then, and most of us were trying to make them look and function like external websites, but the main reason I delayed was fear that stakeholders needed more content. So, they waited while we created.

Doing Better than “I Don’t Know”

Recently, I wrote a post about communicating a new Pay & Rewards system for warehouse employees (“They All Laughed: Can Humor Be a Communications Asset?”). That post was about getting my foot in the door and learning an entirely new functional area – heck, understanding a whole different culture – at the company. I promised to tell you the rest of the story as a kind of case study for communicating difficult information, even when all the facts aren’t available.

For many years, change communicators were advised to get comfortable (and get leadership comfortable) with saying, “I don’t know.”

The fact is, “I don’t know” doesn’t work for most audiences. They suspect you do know something; you’re just not telling them.

Let’s face it, they’re usually right.

Instead of trying to make “I don’t know” work, it’s a lot better and creates far more credibility for everyone involved (leaders, the change team, Corp Comm, and your communications vehicles) to establish regular milestones for communication.

That’s the mandate our warehouse Pay & Rewards team started with. But, instead of providing regular updates, they sequestered themselves while rumors filled the information vacuum.

Rebuilding Credibility

Before I was ushered in to meet the Pay & Rewards team, the facility leader advised me he’d appointed warehouse employees to this team for a reason. He was adamant that, unless there was absolutely no other way, they needed to deliver the communications. This wasn’t going to be some slick communication from HQ. The credibility of the team and the pay system depended on it.

Sitting in on my first session with the team, it was easy to recognize their expertise. They’d been through weeks of training to understand pay systems. They’d spent months formulating and reformulating a design they thought was appropriate when employees moved from the old warehouse to a new distribution center where they’d be expected to work with a massive robotics system and computers.

The team was determined to do right by their colleagues. And that’s where they foundered. Concerned about creating a fair system, they were afraid to communicate a half-developed design – and air their debates as the design took shape. The risk of misunderstanding seemed too great.

Early in their deliberations, they began taping paper over the little window in the conference room door to keep people from peeking at anything that might be on the white board. That didn’t sit well with the warehouse.

Good News or Bad, Be Honest, Clear and Consistent

As we worked together, I realized the new design was good news for the majority of employees: most would see a pay increase when they moved to the new distribution center, and the process for earning bonus pay would be standardized, making it clear and fair for everyone.

(Now, I can hear you thinking, “But, you had good news to communicate. Just go out and tell employees, and the team’ll be fine. It’s not like employees were losing money. That’d be a lot harder to explain.” True, we were lucky there, but six months of silence is a hard act to follow. More to the point: I would have taken exactly the same steps if the new pay system had meant smaller paychecks and fewer bonuses.)

The first thing I did was have the team explain the new pay and rewards design to me, the timetable for its approval, and how it would work as employees transitioned to the new facility. This took a while, but in the confines of a private conference room, they presented the information like the experts they were.

Facing their co-workers was quite a different story. Up until their appointment, the Pay & Rewards team members worked in the warehouse; they’d never had to speak in public, and they were nervous and wary. We spent hours on presentation training, while I worked with a graphic designer back at HQ to bring their design to life.

The team had three critical goals for the presentation:

  • re-establishing the Pay & Rewards team’s credibility
  • explaining the new pay and bonus system clearly, so that everyone walked away with a solid understanding of where they fit in the new pay scale
  • establishing the equity of the new system

When It’s Okay to Bury the Lede

Together, we created a presentation that addressed each of the critical needs and used models (i.e., without actual hourly pay) to explain the pay scales conceptually before sharing the actual new pay and bonus rates.

The presentation went something like this, with each team member taking a turn:

  • the team’s training in pay design
  • the core value of developing a pay system in-house, rather than having one imposed from the outside
  • an objective overview of pay scales in the regional economy
  • benefits of the new pay and bonus system
  • models of the new pay and bonus system
  • expectations of employees: how they could be successful within the new structure
  • the new pay and rewards system
  • questions and answers

This wasn’t a crisis – and we were delivering complicated information that every single employee cares deeply about (“How much am I going to get paid?”) – so, we had good reasons to delay sharing the actual pay rates. If the team had shared the new pay rates at the beginning of the presentation, no one would have heard a word they said after that.

Despite jitters, the team delivered heroically, communicating to every employee in the facility within a 24-hour period and staying late into the night to present to third shift to ensure the information was delivered in a timely and consistent manner.

There were lots of questions, but very little confusion – the audience heard and understood the messages – and the team answered every single query, further re-establishing their credibility.

By the next morning, we’d placed thick notebooks with the full presentation, a long list of Q&As, and a schedule of regular Pay & Rewards team communication updates in the cafeteria and common areas. The team made themselves available for questions and we updated the Q&As whenever there was new information.

There were certainly concerns and questions for a couple of days following the presentation, but before the week was out, everything was back to normal and the old rumors had been put to rest.

Ultimately, the new design gave employees a positive incentive to move to the new facility, so they could work within the new pay system. And our change team moved on to other pressing issues of the transition, such as employee technophobia and business-stakeholder management.

Is there anything we would have done differently if the news had been bad and pay went down? The key indicator for that message was the pay scales in the regional economy and how our facility ranked in relation to other companies. Given bad news, you’d still follow the same order above, ending with a series of small group or brown bag lunch sessions to continue the discussion, reinforcing key messages and answering questions. Then, make all of the information available, as we did, in an open and transparent way. Ongoing communications from the team and their willingness to answer questions frankly and on the fly would help maintain their credibility over the long run.