Oswald Letter

Six Lessons on Employee Communications from Gov. Christie

The other day, I read about a confrontation New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had with the state’s firefighters. It occurred on September 17 of last year. Gov. Christie was scheduled to address the firefighters at their annual convention. As the governor entered the convention center and made his way up to the stage, he was greeted with a chorus of boos from the audience of 7,500. You see, days before his speech to the firefighters, Gov. Christie had proposed major pension reforms for many public employees. He had proposed raising their retirement age, eliminating the cost-of-living adjustment, increasing employee pension contributions, and rolling back a 9 percent pay increase approved years before.

So what did the governor do faced with a hostile crowd of employees? I’m going to tell you, because there’s a great lesson in it for all managers.

First, the governor certainly didn’t back down. He actually encouraged the boos, telling the audience, “Come on, you can do better than that.” To which, by all accounts, they did. It was a smart move by the governor. Let them get it out of their systems. Let the audience have its say. If he had tried to stop them and quiet the crowd, or worse yet, have someone do it for him, I doubt he would have gotten an opportunity to speak that day. But Gov. Christie let them carry on, even encouraged them to do so. But he didn’t turn tail and run.

The next thing he did was crumple up his speech and throw it away. Obviously, whatever he had come to say was no longer important. The audience had determined the agenda for the day’s conversation. I must admit I’m a bit curious what the governor had planned on talking about. But whatever it was, it was no longer important. It was time to address the reason for the less than warm welcome. The subject of today’s conversation was now the firefighters’ pension plan. Bravo to the governor for adjusting on the fly.

He then began by empathizing with the crowd. He told them, “I understand you’re angry, and I understand you’re frustrated, and I understand you feel deceived and betrayed.” The governor could have been defensive after such a negative reception. He could have become angry for being booed and been hostile toward the crowd. Instead, he chose to project empathy. Remember, first always seek to understand. Gov. Christie understood that the firefighters were upset by his proposal.

Then Gov. Christie took the opportunity to educate his audience. He told them that the pension system for public safety workers was underfunded by $46 billion and was continuing to get worse. (Yes, that’s billion with a B!) He told them that they had been promised benefits that the state had no way of paying for and his proposal aimed to fix that. Yes, there would be some pain and sacrifice in it, but at least the pension fund would survive.

Finally, he asked the crowd, “Why are you booing the first guy who came in here and told you the truth?” Here he’s reminding the crowd that he’s being truthful with them. He could come in and tell lies and get a much warmer reception. He chose to tell the truth.

The lesson in this for all managers is that sometimes it’s the leader’s job to deliver bad news. That’s the way it is. Not everything is always sunshine and roses. People might not like to hear what you have to say because it affects them negatively, but they’ll ultimately respect you for dealing with them honestly. In Gov. Christie’s case, by the time he left the stage he was getting more applause than boos.

So here are the lessons in this experience for all of us managers:

  1. Let your people have their say, even when their negative comments are directed at you.
  2. Your message must be on the subject that employees’ care about most — them.
  3. When faced with employees who are upset and angry, don’t forget to empathize.
  4. Explain why you did what you did. Don’t treat your employees like children and tell them that you know what’s best for them. Give them the reasons for your decision.
  5. Delivering bad news is part of the job.
  6. Be honest.

Gov. Christie set a great example for all of us to follow when it comes to employee communication. Here’s hoping we’re all smart enough to follow it.