The straight-talk needed on ABC job cuts: BBC expert

By Harley Dennett

Tuesday November 25, 2014


ABC management needs to watch out for “negative leaders” within their own ranks who will undermine change efforts, warns a British government communications expert who steered the BBC through its reform programs.

Russell Grossman, now the director of group communications for the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, says his experience is that “change that doesn’t work is because of either passive or active resistance to that change”, and confronting that resistance is necessary to achieve the desired results.

His first experience with these counter-agents of reform goes back to his days as BBC’s head of internal communications, in part because of the types of people who tend to be employed at public broadcasters.

“They’re full of people who are intelligent, articulate, worldly and, to a degree, cynical,” Grossman told The Mandarin. “You had people who could very well understand the theory and drivers behind the change and actively did not agree with it; intellectuals if you like. You would more likely see people like that in organisations like the BBC.”

At the time, the BBC wasn’t so much cutting jobs, as the ABC is now, but telling staff to do their jobs differently and take a more audience-focused view rather than solely follow the interests of producers. But these negative leaders made the task that much harder by undermining the change in front of their subordinates.

“Negative leaders are people who you often find in the middle of an organisation in the hierarchy,” Grossman said. “These are people who often have the most to lose. They’re the people who have typically been in the organisation for a long time and the status quo actually represents their power base.”

“Those people leading change need to be as aware of negative leaders in change as they are of positive leaders.”

Grossmann says it’s easier to spot the positive leaders, but it’s those silently opposing that need the most attention.

“These are people who might, if you call a meeting about change, they just won’t be there,” he said. “They’d be too busy to do courses or workshops on change. They might themselves staff another initiative. You might see them question the evidence of the budget, the authority of the timelines of the change, they may just ignore the change, or they may encourage their own staff to not turn up to the change initiative meetings.

“Their influence can be both under the water line but also quite pervasive. Those people leading change need to be as aware of negative leaders in change as they are of positive leaders. The difference being that positive leaders are usually those that you can see straight off.”

Grossman is in Australia this week in his other capacity as international chair of the International Association of Business Communicators, talking with professionals in both public and private sectors about how to support organisation leaders in bringing people with them on a change program. He just happens to be touring IABC chapters in Australia during one of the most visibly turbulent change programs at a Commonwealth body, and certainly the most traumatic for the public broadcaster.

Roger Grossman (third from the right) and his IBAC team
Russell Grossman (third from the right) and his IABC team

The advice he has for best practice mirrors closely the strategy ABC managing director Mark Scott has followed in announcing up to 400 job cuts. Particularly, as Scott has been visible and direct in communicating with his staff about job losses ahead. Simple and to the point language is what organisations and especially leaders need to use.

“What often happens is when leaders want to commit something in paper they use the most obfuscatory language they can think of because they want to feel important and they don’t want to be completely upfront,” said Grossman.

“Typically, if there are job cuts, nobody will mention the word ‘job cuts’. ‘Role-sizing’, ‘down-sizing’, ‘right-sizing’, ‘restructuring for the needs of the business’ … the one phrase that you’ll very rarely see is ‘there will be job cuts’. What happens is right-standing journalists will read this and say ‘oh, so it’s all about job cuts then’. The headline is going to be job cuts anyway, so be open and say it.

“Leaders need to recognise that accountability, transparency and authenticity comes from simple straight talking — what might be called down and dirty communications, where there is a basic understanding of what’s happening.”

The role of the communicator within these organisations is to encourage that visibility and authenticity. “There is always a good story to be told around the change, and often what happens that organisations are timid to be forward about that,” Grossman said. “Often a truthful story, one that is honest and open about what is happening, the more that can be told externally as well as internally the more that employees can understand.”

“They need to be the grit in the oyster without being the pin in the balloon …”

Communicators also need to be the “conscience” of their organisation, and remind managers and leaders of what they should be doing. “They need to be the grit in the oyster without being the pin in the balloon, meaning they need to be sufficiently deft at being subtle and approachable to leaders to guide them where they need to go, without being so obtuse that leaders tell them to go away and do something else instead,” Grossman said.

One strategy that change communications experts have taken to improve the quality of reform efforts is the not-for-profit movement Engage For Success, which represent 2 million workers in the UK. Grossman says there’s evidence that engaged employees cope better with change.

“We believe that the more engaged people are the more they will be willing to change, not willing to go without but they’ll be more ready to accept the change that is being proposed,” he said.

“People should feel part of the change, and not that change is done to them.”

More at The Mandarin: ABC, SBS brief staff on cuts; 400 jobs to go at Aunty

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