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Realistic reports, not Bulletins of Brilliance are the best option right now.

I can’t remember when it first happened. It was when access either to photocopiers or to home printers got easier – sometime in the 1990s. Either way, some good friends of our family, stopped sending Christmas cards with a personalized message.

Instead, we started getting “Bulletins of Brilliance” – two sides of copied A4 about little Johnny’s amazing academic abilities, his sister’s perfect piano playing and, of course, that year’s family luxury holiday to Bali, Bermuda or some other exotic destination. Everything was rosy. The perfect family life.

We used to joke that the bad news, disappointments, and struggles – those integral parts of daily life – must have been on pages three and four, because we never saw them.

The temptation to communicate only positives – or worse still, the illusion of perfection – is greater when distance provides the opportunity and motive to make everything sound great.

My family had a different approach… My grandparents spent a significant part of their life overseas. My parents did, too. Perhaps, it’s no surprise that I have spent most of my working life doing the same. For all three generations, it meant a long time away from loved ones. But we are still a close family. (We’ve spent the last three Saturday nights doing a transatlantic family quiz on Zoom.) We naturally share the good news, our plans, and the successes. We also share the bad news.

There is only one rule in our remote communication: if you’ve got problems, don’t hide them.
This simple rule has worked for over 50 years for us. Today, it can work for equally well for global business units and teams which you can’t get to because of the current travel restrictions.

Don’t hide the reality of the situation. People can deal with more truth than we think. They are amazingly resilient. Given the core facts, they’ll often find a way out of the dilemmas they face.

Hiding the facts – with delusion information like those Bulletins of Brilliance – just increases negative behaviours like denial, complaining, victimhood, blaming, and in-fighting. It only guarantees a downward spiral of stress and badly-informed decision-making. That guarantees bigger problems later.

As we near the end of April, we’re into the state of confusion. Nobody knows the perfect path out of this. Many employees will be feeling frustrated, nervous, confused, restless, helpless, sad or in chaos.

The question I am helping executives with at the moment is: how do global managers engage and motivate people when separated by big distances?
The top priorities for global managers are:

  • Time now to leave behind the generalizations, like “We’re all in this together” and “These are unprecedented times.” People know that and have either accepted it or are stuck in denial.
  • Share specific examples of small successes: a customer that got great service last week, or a new way of working with suppliers to ensure continuity. We can’t share detailed recovery plans – nobody has one. But by sharing small wins and successes, we create the base culture for trying new solutions out.
  • Identify your vital managers and employees - the ones you must keep to maintain operations. Talk with your immediate team and these vital people - frequently, openly and clearly.
  • Talk to workers' representatives, unions and other employee groups. For most managers that's easy. For a few, strained relationships make that difficult. But there's never been a better time to reach out to all sides and create a new relationship.
  • Above all, insist on realism in reports and communication. Opinions are best based on data and statistics and where opinions aren’t, then label them; “speculations”, “expert insights” and “intuitions” are all good labels to use.

The only certainty is that ignoring reality won’t help. New ideas and ways of serving customers start with managers at the top sharing realistic reports. Because realism, not hiding problems, is the toehold for recovery in any situation.

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