Mr Steinbrück, as a lawyer and Associated Partner at SKM, you have accompanied a number of companies in restructuring projects over the years. How important was communication in these cases?
When restructuring is necessary to secure the future of a company, ideally a project group is formed in which all relevant “faculties” are represented. These typically consist of experts from business administration, law, HR and communication. Communication is therefore one important element in shaping change in the company.
So you do not assign a particularly special role to communication?
No. It is not more important, but also not less important than other functions. The project group, which often reports to a steering committee, has to see itself as a team and the people within it have to listen to each other. So there should be no primus inter pares among the faculties.
You have spoken of an ideal world; what experiences have you had in the real world?
Unfortunately it often goes like this: people in charge only call for communicative expertise when the situation is already very serious or almost hopeless. This is, in my opinion, a mistake in terms of project planning. It results in stress. It costs energy to make up for lost time and to synchronise the existing project results. An aim of our communication approach is therefore to create acceptance and perspectives for the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of operational changes at an early stage. To do this, companies must not only explain why measures are necessary, but at the same time ensure planning certainty among the workforce.
For the group of employees who will stay, this sounds plausible. But how does a company connect with people who are likely to lose their jobs?
First of all, managers have to show a level of understanding for the fact that those who are fundamentally affected in professional terms are simply going to be angry. Employees are people, not numbers. This might sound trivial, but a lot of managers tend to think Excel tables and bar charts are communication. The affected employees do not want to hear business analysis, they want to keep their jobs. They are not interested in the progress of “Change Project XYZ”, the new organisational chart or hoped-for improvements in turnover; they want honest discussions and clear information about their future.
So are rational arguments pointless?
Absolutely not. A factual presentation is definitely needed – especially of the reasons for the restructure. But the core of communication lies elsewhere. First and foremost, empathy is needed. Taking into account the legal framework, the point is to make it clear that the company is trying to cushion negative consequences as fairly as possible. At the same time, any positive messages about the future must be presented appropriately and credibly. In this process, those responsible for communication need to coordinate with the other project participants, choose the appropriate channels and ensure the right timing of the messages. And finally: the exchange does not end on the day a change project is announced internally and externally.
In addition to the employees, there are other stakeholders. What approach do you advise those responsible to take towards politicians, public authorities and the media?
You are referring to external communication, which must be synchronised with internal communication. Those responsible in politics, public authorities and the media react very differently to restructuring plans. Fundamentally, I think it is important to inform and involve the various stakeholders as early as possible. This requires a precise analysis of the situation. What is the economic situation in the region? Are politicians in the midst of an election campaign? Even supposedly “small changes” can develop their own dynamics. No one wants to hear about drastic personnel changes in their region from the media. Therefore, in order to protect the company’s reputation, a quick and professional communicative approach is also important in public discourse. And professional means communicating correctly, swiftly and credibly.