A good vision taps deeply seated emotions. It stirs people, kindles their passion and propels them forward. But visions don’t just appear, and organizations don’t gather around them automatically. This is the job of a leader and it’s one of the most important aspects of leadership.
Equally important, however, is the job of communicating a vision once it’s created. In fact, leaders are taught to stop at nothing in unfolding their vision to the organization. The conventional view is that, regardless of the situation, the vision has to be in front of people. If not, the organization will fail to achieve its goals.
But what about organizations in crisis, which over time have become severely battered by change? Should leaders communicate the vision as they have before? Our research and client experience suggest not.
When an organization is suffering from acute change fatigue, vision can become non-value added noise. If the climate is strained severely enough, more vision is like thunder when the organization needs rain.
In order to understand why, let’s first review how a vision works. Second, let’s examine the case of a severely change-battered organization, noting the effects of communicating vision in that context. Finally, let’s consider three suggestions for communicating from a change-battered context.
How a Vision Works
A vision fills two important functions. One is emotional, the other cognitive.
The primary emotional function of a vision is to motivate. Vision provides the crucial performance motive beyond the survival instinct. It does this by showing people an attractive place to go and reason to go there. It’s a portrayal of the future, an aspiration, a direction painted in bold strokes. Simply knowing the grand intention of an enterprise often motivates people towards it.
A second emotional function of a vision is to provide security. Under conditions of change, vision compensates for the chill winds of uncertainty. By giving employees something to hold on to, it acts as proxy for the comfort of the status quo when you have to leave it. It provides much-needed continuity to an organization when that organization is deliberately disturbed.
The cognitive function of a vision works differently. It provides information and direction in order to allocate resources and set priorities. As a practical matter, a vision increases an organization’s capacity to perform work by creating the coordinated action necessary to produce and deliver goods and services.
For its cognitive function, a vision is the ultimate economy of scale. A clear and compelling vision answers thousands of questions, guides employees in thousands of small decisions, and eliminates the ambiguity that might otherwise create the need for thousands of conversations. It is the mass production of commodity answers. Once communicated and understood, a vision lowers the unit costs of performing these functions. Of course, a vision leaves the detail out, so there are thousands more questions. But it provides the broad alignment that allows an organization to move quickly through basic issues of direction and priority in order to spend time and energy on strategic and tactical implementation. It is a packaged resource that allows people in many cases to direct themselves. It organizes assumptions, values, words, actions, and resources. It informs strategy, systems, and structure.
Without vision, organizations tend to suffer from both emotional and cognitive deficits that are reflected in lower productivity and poor execution.
Vision and Context
In spite of its power, vision remains highly sensitive to context, especially when the context is a change-battered one.
Consider the real case of a large steel fabricator that we shall call Titan Manufacturing. In succession, this organization traveled through labor unrest, reductions in force, the installation of a new enterprise computing system, a severe market downturn, the commissioning of new capital assets, and Chapter Eleven bankruptcy. During these events, senior leaders continued to communicate a vision of becoming the low-cost producer in the industry.
Every time the CEO stood up to regale employees with the vision, morale cratered more. In the context of so much debilitating change, the vision could not perform its cognitive, much less its emotional, function. Because Titan bore the impress of the accumulated traumas, the vision actually weakened organizational resolve. Employees became less receptive to any message from management.
From a communications standpoint, the blanket directive that you can’t over-communicate was backfiring.
Acute Change Fatigue
Most organizations have reeled from the rigors of change. When a major change effort succeeds, employees find their weariness swallowed up in the positive results of the transformation. There is renewal. When the effort fails, the organization is set back.
Organizations are resilient so they usually come to balance again. But what about an organization like Titan that had already attempted transformational change several times? This is a vastly different starting point for leaders whose job it is to summon institutional will in order to meet business goals. This kind of change fatigue goes beyond normal corporate weariness. When an organization runs out of catalytic sources, it can become so severely impaired that serious threats to viability are drowned in a deeper affliction of unrelieved pessimism. Fatigue becomes acute. When an organization travels through a string of false starts, it can simply outrun its emotional resources. It reaches the point of maximum inertia. It becomes almost numb to crisis and draconian measures even though it is nearing business failure.
If psychologists diagnosed organizations the way they do people, Titan-like acute change fatigue would be a nearly terminal disorder, a psychology marked by a deep and intractable apathy and a near stock out of change capacity.
Of course every company experiences some failure in pursuing its most important initiatives, but when this continues over a sustained period of time, the weariness induced in the process deepens. Employees see no new beginning, no reception by happy stakeholders, and no rejuvenating evidence that the future is promising. Ironically, when you’re afflicted with acute change fatigue, you find yourself in the worst state of change readiness when you’re most in need of change.
Vision and Acute Change Fatigue
The case of Titan demonstrates that communicating a vision to a change-battered organization requires a different approach. Whenever an organization attempts major change, it puts leadership credibility and its store of social capital at risk. Organizations with acute change fatigue have already done so and paid the price of compounded failure. In this predicament, leaders can further damage their organizations if they subscribe to the common lore of communications theory that says to keep the vision out front.
At a certain point, vision falters. Rather than reach wellsprings of motivation, it can become de-motivating and dull the senses because it seems ever more out of reach.
The leaders at Titan didn’t see the impact of acute change fatigue on their organization, so they proceeded in communicating as if conditions were normal. Their instinct was to communicate the vision more. Yet the recent failures had seared fatigue into the corporate tissue. Employees responded stoically to an emotional call to arms. They turned off to critical strategic issues concerning future market position, new competition coming on-line, evolving technology, and tightening customer demands. They simply could not bring conviction to a new change imperative as a result of new rounds of messaging. No amount of thunder could water the crops.
In this case, we witnessed vision tone-deaf leaders persist in declamatory deliveries and appeals to emotion, thinking it would bring employees around.
The longer an organization experiences suspended results, the more survival becomes the vision. Survival is the only vision and retrenchment the only strategy with credibility if false starts have inoculated an organization against a higher aspiration. The power of a vision becomes disabled when it’s no longer imaginable. With acute change fatigue, employees once motivated by the magnetic force of vision become successively amused, bewildered, distressed, and finally sedated with such declarations. When leaders at Titan tried harder to communicate the vision, their desperate attempts rendered jaded employees even more frustrated.
Normally, organizations need the power of vision and a new identity to perform their way out. But if you’re change-battered, your organization may not have enough residual social capital to more forward.
Responding to Acute Change Fatigue
What can you do if your organization is battered with change and your attempts to communicate a vision are earning you sneers or howls of protest?
If your organization is suffering acute change fatigue, your vision may be non-value-added noise. It may be hurting your efforts to recover performance. In this situation, I suggest three things.
First, recognize the condition
Communications alone can’t build momentum. Leaders must acknowledge this and respond from this context. You can’t force the pace until results restore a measure of credibility — credibility in both leadership and the change effort itself, which are now bound together.
Unfortunately, conventional wisdom still places too much emphasis on communication volume, channels, stylistic variables, and visionary content, as if they were a standard prescription. Tweaking these things as a matter of artistic difference doesn’t cut it. It’s more fundamental.
Second, dim the vision
If an organization is suffering from acute change fatigue, survival will assume its place as the de facto. Everyone gets that. Unless the organization can pull through the current crisis, the original vision stays suspended. So for this simple reason—that the original vision is no longer the incumbent vision, I suggest a partial dimming of the lights. Taken out of context, this suggestion might seem not only counter-intuitive but also dangerous, yet a temporary brownout of vision is usually what the organization needs to allow it to focus. It’s more harmful to persist in the old vision when everyone knows it’s at least temporarily irrelevant. A survival message is the vision no matter what leaders say.
In addition to dimming the old vision, leaders should also look at the rest of their messages. Other messages that are based in or related to the old vision may need to be defrocked as well. Specifically, where messages contain visionary elements, grand intentions, and sweeping goals, they may need to be reduced in emotion and promotion.
This doesn’t mean leaders create a void to spawn the rumor mill. Radio silence is just as dangerous. Blackouts force organizations to slip into speculation and even lower productivity. People should never be left to wonder. The focus and energy that normally goes to strategic communication needs to be redirected to issues of tactical and operational execution.
Third, focus on tactics
When crisis makes survival the vision, the leadership imperative is to focus employee effort on measurable execution. In times of acute change fatigue, employees typically expend enormous amounts of time and energy worrying about the situation. If leaders can engage their discretionary efforts, the organization stands a higher chance of making progress and performing its way out. This means top leadership has to lower its communication from strategy to tactics and operations. It has to focus on specific, measurable goals. It should communicate in numbers more than it did before as it emphasizes the importance of concrete measures of performance.
So what happened at Titan? Senior leadership redirected its communication to focus almost exclusively on weekly operating metrics. It honed in on, for instance, the company’s on-time delivery performance, which had suffered badly in previous months. While browning out vision, leadership turned the lights up on actual-versus-targeted performance reporting. It wasn’t necessarily inspiring, but the employees settled down and began coalescing around this emphasis. It channeled their attention and aligned their efforts.
With unprecedented, almost shop-floor level, attention from leadership, the company achieved a rapid step change improvement in on-time performance and several other operating metrics that allowed it to slowly but steadily climb out of its state of fatigue and poor performance.
The underlying principle is that it becomes increasingly difficult to lead with vision when reality isn’t changing. When an organization is sputtering during any long stretch of anemic results, leaders should think about how receptive people are to the vision. If the organization finds itself in a long hard slog, interspersed with extended periods of undetected progress, it’s time to examine vision communication. Chances are that leadership needs to dim the vision and focus its communication on execution and concrete measures of performance.