Communication in Complex Situations

April 8, 2021

Last week I had the privilege of presenting a webinar to 1,100 Chartered Accountants in Australia and New Zealand.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the individual and collective impact that CAs have on our economic and societal wellbeing in New Zealand and in Australia. They are often at the centre of reporting, analysis, background for critical decisions, assurance, strategy, compliance, risk, and economic development. A CA’s role and activity is often the glue that holds our business and government communities together.

As highly skilled professionals, these individuals are faced with a wide range of critical situations, influencing scenarios and key decisions.

We spoke about the challenges and opportunities of communication in a challenging operating environment.

In many sectors, we are currently undergoing a period of unprecedented complexity.

A multi-level series of environmental and situational work challenges exist including intense public and regulatory scrutiny, low growth/low return economics, a global pandemic and ongoing societal structural change.  It is clear that many professionals are presented with significant challenges to communicate effectively in a number of situations.

In our executive coaching practice we encounter a range of communication challenges with clients including the following:

  • How to effectively plan your career in the face of uncertainty
  • How to provide feedback to your boss
  • How to make a decision when the right answer is unclear to you and to other stakeholders
  • How to communicate to stakeholders when interests clash and the dynamics are rapidly changing

Conventional communication wisdom still holds value in times of complexity including:

  • Understand your stakeholders including their priorities, predispositions and motivations
  • Effectively frame your communication to ensure stakeholders remain open to your ideas
  • Ensure you communicate persuasively and tailor the implications, advantages, benefits and consequences clearly
  • Ensure you secure buy-in at all critical stages of the communication

Some key situations raised during the session correlate strongly with those encountered during executive coaching sessions. They include:

  1. Setting and communicating strategy during periods of uncertainty
  2. How to communicate changes in organisation or team structures
  3. Providing difficult work feedback
  4. Managing your career in times of change
  5. Dealing with a challenging boss

In addition to conventional wisdom there are some highly effective communication approaches to support leaders and teams to reach decisions and to communicate in complex situations. These include the following –

  1. Acknowledge the importance of the decision / issue and why

While acknowledging or enquiring about the other person’s position may be seen by some as a sign of weakness or a waste of time, it can often build trust necessary to progress a complex negotiation or critical decision. A major infrastructure client of mine spent over 18 months systematically analysing stakeholders in an important, sector-shaping transaction and developed feelings of authenticity and trust with its negotiation counterparts.

  1. Ask for input

Many teams, based on experience, prefer to rely on their own education and background to prepare for communication. In unprecedented or complex scenarios, it is often helpful to seek as much internal and external input as possible to evaluate all possible approaches to decision-making and communication. A major community body is currently redefining its approach to governance through active involvement from a wider range of stakeholders to build commitment and to mitigate communication risk.

  1. Describe how you would think about the issue

In many decision-making and communication situations, leaders or professionals feel compelled to provide an answer or an opinion. Particularly if the domain is that related to their own experience. More recently with a combination of structural changes and public scrutiny, decisions or communication made can be premature or over-simplistic. In many cases, it can help to defer a decision or a communication and to simply focus on the process (options, criteria and timeframe) for decisions to be made.

  1. Consider the principles

Many challenging communications related to the inconsistent needs of stakeholders. Our political environment is a case in point where an allocation of benefit for one section of the community may be at the expense of others. In many communication coaching situations, it is often more effective and clear to communicate in situations where the principles are clear. For example, in a situation of competing interests, what is “the greater good”? What are the ethical issues and how do I think about them and act accordingly? What other principles might help you to decide and to communicate?

  1. No-regrets decisions

Often, we can feel like we must make major or transformational decisions with significant personal or business risk attached. And, in an unstable or changing operating environment, major decisions may be both negatively impactful and irreversible. It can help to evaluate decisions and communication based on “no-regrets” moves which may be smaller, lower risk, progressive and allow some flexibility if unforeseen cha gets in the operating environment occur.

We will often see this type of decision when evaluating strategic options and, for example, a client might take a small equity position in a growing business with an option to acquire the remainder if certain conditions prevail.

For Chartered accountants and other professionals, increased complexity in both decision-making and communication is inevitable. And, clients and internal teams will rely increasingly on the analysis, assurance, advise and insights provided by CAs into the future.

It pays to combine both conventional communication wisdom as well as develop new communication techniques to effectively support yourselves in these crucial roles you play in our community.