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7 steps to help employees understand – and act on – critical issues

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Can you imagine getting 39 million people to understand a critical issue – then act on it?

Most of us have a tough time getting just five people to listen, understand and respond to critical issues. Try getting a whole department or your entire company — which likely includes far fewer than 39 million people — and it seems insurmountable.

Yet, community and political leaders in the state of California rallied millions of residents to understand how critical drought conditions had become between 2012 and 2016. And they got residents to cut water use almost 30%.

Lesson in critical issues

This surprising success is a leadership lesson in training, engagement and teamwork nearly any HR pro — and leaders — can use to gain buy-in and hit goals, explains Donald Miller, StoryBrand CEO and author of Building a StoryBrand.

Of course, it wasn’t an easy task for Californians. Miller suggests these seven takeaways as steps for any leader who needs employees to absorb important information and act on critical issues:

1. Create heroes

Most people actually want to step up in critical situations. But they often can’t because they don’t fully understand what’s going on. Sometimes, there’s a lack of transparency. Sometimes, there are a lot of unknowns surrounding the critical issue.

So rather than start by explaining a complex issue, first frame employees – not yourself or the company – as the heroes in the story. For instance, “You’ll be the first to recognize when X reaches a critical phase. Let’s plan now how you’ll handle it.”

They likely already know enough about the issue – Californians didn’t need to be told they faced a drought – so you can jump right to what they can do to help.

2. Explain your role

Next, explain how you, as a leader, will provide them with the information, encouragement and resources they’ll need in the crisis.

For instance, California residents got updated information on a website (this was before social media had its massive presence). There, state officials regularly shared tips on home and agricultural water efficiency.

3. Define the problem

Once the audience – your employees or front-line supervisors – see they can do something about the situation, they’re better prepared to understand the severity.

Define the problem in clear, precise language. Don’t sugarcoat it.

California leaders showed residents – sometimes with infographics, sometimes in plain-spoken English – that reservoirs were drying up and rainfall was too unpredictable to fix it.

 4. Define the solution

This is when you paint a picture of how things will look if people accept your solution – and run with it. Avoid vague language.

Lay out the steps that need to be taken, who needs to take specific responsibilities and when the goals
for each step must be met.

In California, it was a five-point plan built on expert advice and public polls – which helped build buy-in for solutions.

5. Define roles

Defining roles is the push people need to take ownership of the success.

Managers can explain what needs to be done and ask for volunteers or assign employees to exact positions.

When people know everyone’s role, they become accountable to each other and the overall success.

In California, there were regular updates on each area’s water use expectations and how residents are performing. The accountability to neighbors and awareness of what others in the state were doing helped create more support for the solution, too.

6. Call to action

Ask people to take action. Ask them, Do you:

  • understand the situation now?
  • understand what you need to do?
  • commit to what you’ve been asked?

California politicians, celebrities and community leaders committed to the call to preserve water – practically using peer pressure to get residents to do it, too.

7. Explain the consequences

Don’t sugarcoat this either. Explain what will happen – layoffs, budget cuts, recalls, etc. – if people don’t take the necessary action.

In California, the prospect of a long-term drought that would hurt farming and the economy was an enormous motivator.

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