The Dialogue Space

Imagine being called to a meeting by your company. You are given no reason for this meeting. You contact your department’s divisional leader and human resources but there is no information forthcoming about the meeting. As a dutiful employee, you show up at the location filled with anxiety. There, you find several other workers, who are equally in a state of confusion about the reason for the meeting. Your anxiety is now fueling great concern, echoed by the whispers of the other workers.

Retrieved from Google Images, November 3, 2013

The meeting is convened and the fateful words are heard. The script is always the same, as the bearers of the grave news about retrenchment show little or no emotion. You and the other workers sit in shocked silence, unsure of what the pronouncements mean and hoping that there is somehow a mistake.

But it is not!

I recently came across an article in the print media that was announcing the termination of 70 workers on account of retrenchment exercises. HD Hopwood (a Jamaican Company), supplier of pharmaceutical products, left its employees in a quandary after its announcement that a retrenchment exercise was to be pursued. Harsh economic times have forced many companies to cut their workforce to stay viable. HD Hopwood is not immune to the challenges many other corporations are experiencing, hence its decision to reduce the number of employees. From the reports, the workers were at odds with the manner in which they were informed.

The way companies announce life altering change is often mired in controversy, which begs the question of what is a palatable way to share dreadful news. In my experience employees have expressed that they too, are invested in the companies success and appreciate fully the weight of operating in the global marketplace. But when companies fail to attract and retain qualified talent, fail to re-tool and re-train, fail to strategize based on trends in the market, fail to listen to their customers (internal and external), the end result is usually undesirable.

Workers claim that in instances when they are caught off-guard about retrenchment exercises, it is usually because there is no mechanism in place to communicate the health of the organization. Workers are usually of the opinion that fingers should be pointed at the leaders when profit margins are not met. On the other side of the coin, some leaders operate on a level of fear. The distrust that exists between labour and management is usually grounded in the belief that the each is out to get the other. Sadly, the relationship between leaders and workers sour on account of a tremendous wariness of the motives behind behaviors. Behind the carefully manicured image of many companies, lie a vortex of behaviors and personalities that when left unchecked, create opportunities for misunderstanding. At the heart of enterprise dysfunction is the absence of reliable and credible information which encourages both sides to fill in the gap, much to the demise of the organizational objectives.

Context Means Everything

Leaders in toxic environments are usually fearful of giving too much information because of the possibility of  “sabotage”. The historical context of management and labor relations, provide an insightful view of why there is a resistance to sharing information. If we were to examine the mission and vision statements of companies, can we say that we are satisfied that those expressions are in sync with behaviors? Do employees understand the expectations and are they able to articulate the company’s values? Is there an anti-management/anti-labour sentiment that drives resistance?

Change the dialogue

There is need to change the dialogue that exists between management and labour. Easier said than done, especially when both sides “nurse wounds” from interactions that have not ended in their favor. The dialogue must be reframed to establish the parameters/space within which parties are able to remove their masks and to address the difficult issues of the day. This calls for a level of vulnerability that is not easily attained.

Manage the process

A process is rated as successful if the participants share a common goal. The creation of a dialogue space requires an openness from the parties to the process. In crafting that space we need to look at other inputs:

  • Frequency of meetings.
  • Champions of the topics to be discussed.
  • Provision of data that can be understood by the parties to the discussion.
  • Establishing ground rules to guide the process.
  • External resources, once agreed to by members to the process.
  • An agenda to keep people focused.
  • Crafting ideas that can be researched and used when necessary.
  • Feedback on matters of importance.
  • Responsibility for how and when difficult information will be translated to the wider organization.
  • Team with responsibility for sharing information to the wider organization.
  • Tools to measure results.

This list is by no means exhaustive. The creation of a dialogue space is company specific and will be informed by what the parties wish to improve in the relationship.

Sharing Difficult News

  • Create the timeline with which to communicate with the general body.
  • Identify the team that will be tasked with communicating with the impacted team members.
  • Generate a list of possible questions and the best responses to offer in light of the decision being taken.
  • Provide reasonable assistance to minimize the impact on those affected.
  • Demonstrate empathy.
  • Provide adequate notice.
  • Create a schedule of how outstanding compensation will be honored as well as how termination benefits will be addressed.
  • Use language that can be easily understood.
  • If appropriate and viewed as a necessity, engage the services of counselors. It is often useful to give persons who are trained in grief and anxiety management.
  • Allied services should also be considered. These services include, refreshing one’s resume, taking advantage of skills training programs, and referral services to assist with events such as reduction in force (RIF) programs.

Dialogue Space Model
Suzette Henry-Campbell 2013

The model above illustrates the variables that inform the dialogue space. The more transparent the process is, the more value is created. The key is to allow for transparency and unbridled flow of communication. The arrow to the right of the image demonstrates the unitary vision or direction to be pursued. The process realizes success when there is a subjugation of egos and other threats to maintaining open channels. The preservation of that space depends on the participation of the partners to the process as well as how adaptive they are to the internal and external shocks in the environment.

Copyright Suzette Henry-Campbell 2013


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