For 13 years my son has gone to the same summer camp with a group of friends. It’s a no frills day camp in the woods. The activities are largely as they have been for fifty years: archery, ropes course, capture the flag, wiffle ball tournaments, and making lanyards and gimp at arts and crafts. The only thing remotely fancy is that the camp has a pool. These boys would come home every summer day covered head to toe in mud, sweat, mosquito bites and from time to time, poison ivy and lice. My son loves everything about this camp and we joke that he will likely try to convince a future spouse to get married there.
Once they reach high school, the kids become employees. First as counselors in training, then junior counselors then senior counselors. It is a long, hot day that starts early, pays below minimum wage, and as anyone working with children can tell you, fraught with emotional complications. But this band of teens who work there are incredibly close all year round. This is their last summer together before heading to college for most of them. And while a job is never guaranteed, longevity at the camp has historically driven staffing decisions.
This week, two of my son's closest friends found out they would not have a job there. One of them wrote his college essay about this camp and had just made a sign for the camp in his woodworking class. My son hasn't heard either way and he is understandably anxious. Do you know how his friends found out they didn’t have a job? An email that said “Dear Applicant”. Not a phone call that says, “Hey, we know you have been part of our community for thirteen years, but we had a very hard decision to make”. Volume was not the issue. The kids estimate it was a total of 4-5 former counselors that were rejected. Yet they couldn’t even get an email with their own name on it.
Empathetic Communication Matters
In my opinion, people are increasingly avoiding personal, difficult conversations at work, hiding behind mass emails, systems or not communicating at all. In the process they forget or ignore the human impact of how things are communicated, not just what is communicated. I am not arguing that the camp needed to offer every former counselor a job or that there may not be another reason behind the rejections. I am arguing that when anyone has spent a lot of time with you, if you have difficult news to deliver, there is a way to do it with grace, empathy and humanity. Leaders also need to think about the impact of how they communicate decisions on those who are connected to the receiver of the difficult news. This camp now has a group of counselors coming to work who a) just spent several days being completely anxious about whether they had a job or not since offers and rejections were not on the same day and b) whose close friends are devastated and feeling poorly treated. That’s not a great start for good employee engagement.
I see this avoidance or neglect of face to face, difficult conversations in so many places at work. The obvious one is in hiring or downsizing decisions, but also when you are breaking up with a vendor or choosing not to buy from one, when investments or projects don’t pay off, and during mergers and acquisitions. I can’t tell you how many times at WeSpire that we just stop hearing from a company after spending hours together discussing the potential of using our products. It’s infuriating. How hard is it to send an email or pick up the phone and say, “Hey, we just didn’t have the budget this year” or “We ended up liking this aspect of another vendor better” or even “we just can’t seem to move forward right now and I can’t really tell you why - it’s just not a high enough priority.”
Championing Honest Dialogues
I’ve had my share of difficult news to communicate and I know I don’t always get it right. But I do think leaders need to keep the human impact of their decisions front and center and ask their people to do the same. Pick up the phone or hop on Zoom to have a difficult conversation. Don’t ghost people who’ve spent time with you. Make humans available for questions, not just FAQs, websites and Intranet pages. Personalize emails when you can. Make yourself available for questions. Tell people when they are disappointing you or not performing to your expectations so they can fix it or at least aren’t surprised when they go a different direction.
Technology has given us many wonderful new capabilities, but it also can make it easier to forget who is on the other end of that screen, email, app or website: humans with feelings. Remembering to prioritize those humans, and their feelings, might be the most important thing you can do as a leader.