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Managing Uncertainty After the 2016 US Election

For many, coming on the heels of Brexit, the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election was unexpected; communications teams should help employees make sense of these complex events and navigate an uncertain environment

On Tuesday, November 8, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. For many, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was shocking, as polls leading up to the election favored Hillary Clinton.

And there are numerous unknowns about how Trump’s populist campaign rhetoric will translate into specific policy, since Trump has no previous government experience and is viewed by some as having an unpredictable nature.

Coming on the heels of the similarly surprising Brexit referendum outcome, the 2016 US presidential election invites hard-to-answer questions about broader cultural and economic trends. Communicators must help their companies’ employees make sense of these complex events and navigate a deeply uncertain environment.

Lessons for Communicators

Psychological research on stress shows that when we encounter an unexpected change we immediately make two assessments:

  1. How much of a threat is this change to me personally?
  2. What resources can I bring to bear to cope with it?

We then weigh the perceived threat level and our ability to cope, arriving at a net feeling or view. If the threat exceeds our capability, we view the situation as too daunting and withdraw into ourselves. But if we believe there are things we can do to reduce the threat, we see the same situation as a challenge to be managed.

The lesson for corporate communications teams is to help employees support each other and collectively make sense of the unexpected, while always staying rooted in the things they can control. Here are some general principles on how to do it:

  1. Keep your message simple and be open and honest in your communication: For CEB Communications Leadership Council members, this is a good example of open and honest communication, albeit under a different circumstance, from Best Buy (pdf).

  2. Focus your message on building self-confidence and prompting information-seeking from peers: Use CEB’s Change Messaging Tool (pdf) to make sure your message is likely to build employees’ sense of control.

  3. Plan to serialize your communications as more information becomes available and absorbed by employees: Learn how to break large messages into chapters and communicate them to different audiences (pdf).


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