Communicating and Leading in a Time of Change

animated gif of a stick figure walking backwards

Every change management book I’ve ever read stresses the importance of communication during periods of organizational change. Talk to staff often, express your vision, share your excitement, listen to others on the journey. All sage advice.

And we’re certainly following it.

All NLM leaders, from group supervisors to branch chiefs to division heads to me, are communicating a lot—via staff meetings, wiki notices, large town hall meetings, brown-bag discussions, even this blog—as we prepare the National Library of Medicine to meet the future head on. We’re talking and listening, listening and talking, and it helps, opening our eyes to staff concerns and perceptions, along with their hopes (and fears) for the future.

Communicating vision and direction is so important to my leadership responsibilities that I invest a great deal of time and effort in organizing what I plan to say and how I say it. I review talking points with my senior leadership team to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. I repeatedly rehearse my message, practicing timing and finding the right words to provide reassurance or spark excitement. I solicit staff reactions and allow time in my talks for open discussion (and provide channels for private, written feedback as well). I try to remember all the things I’ve learned about sender/receiver behavior, the importance of eye contact, and the power of nonverbals, including body language and tone of voice.

Despite all that though, what I say is not always what gets heard. After all, even the most carefully honed message has to be heard and understood, and that job falls to the listener. The listener’s daily concerns, tolerance for ambiguity, risk propensity, sense of control, cultural background, and other factors uniquely combine to filter and decode my words into what he or she understands me to be saying. Multiply that by several hundred listeners, and it’s a wonder there’s any alignment at all between what I send out and what is taken in.

To counteract that, I use what in engineering is known as purposeful design to help shape my communication. I carefully consider the range of ways a simple sentence or phrase might be heard by others and think about what aspect of the situation—stress, the presence of others, the nature of the news— might activate various filters and compound the mismatch between what I say and what is heard. I also actively solicit “back talk,” asking people to paraphrase what I’ve said or to tell me what they’ve heard. It takes extra effort, but it can save time in the long run as it uncovers misunderstandings, engages people around the same concept, and ensures we’re all in agreement.

And speaking of “back,” how about walking backward as a communication and leadership strategy? My good friend and mentor John Maeda recently re-shared one of his team leadership messages that featured Pentagon tour guides walking backwards. The guides are trained to lead groups through the building’s maze of hallways while facing them, pointing out important places along the way. John extends the idea to managers, recommending the manager occasionally “walk” facing the team, holding and directing their attention. And, as he wisely notes, “When you are watching where your team’s going, you also need to watch whether they are following.”

So, in this time of change, as we rely on our supervisors and branch chiefs and division heads to communicate vision, listen to staff, and help us move forward, I’m asking them to remember that what they say—what we all say—is often not what is heard and to occasionally walk backwards. The view is enlightening.

Animation credit (walking backwards, top): CC BY Ret Samys

3 thoughts on “Communicating and Leading in a Time of Change

  1. Excellent post. Leadership requires someone to develop a rapport with their staff so that workers will want to follow their leader. And not only to follow but to actively support and encourage that leader for the betterment of the entire organization. What you have written certainly exemplifies a culture that should encourage this.

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