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How a CEO’s speech can backfire

4 min read


We were sitting in a large auditorium with the new CEO of our company at the front of the room. Those of us in the audience were the backbone of research and development in the company — the people who designed the products that made the money for the Fortune 500 we worked in. This company was thriving, economically speaking.

Yet, you could almost touch the apprehension in the room.

Our CEO got up to talk. He began setting us up for some big news — but what? I remember very little of what he said that day except the part that made me feel like I’d been slapped across the face.

He said the accountants had figured that by the time each of us retired (this was an old-fashioned company in a small town that thrived on employee longevity and had the systems in place to encourage lifelong employment), the company would have paid out an average of “x” million dollars in salaries and benefits to each of us.

You might know now where this speech was heading; into the “you better be more productive or we’ll have to lay some of you off” realm. That’s exactly what it was. It wasn’t a veiled threat; the CEO was direct about what would happen if things didn’t change. He was pointed (but not specific) about the increase in productivity that he expected.

There could have been a better way for him to bring this news to us. The CEO’s speech left us feeling less than enthusiastic. You could have heard a pin drop as we slouched out of the room.

The problem was that the CEO’s speech never once made anyone feel inspired or motivated to work harder. Maybe there isn’t a good way to tell employees that there may be layoffs, but his way of telling us didn’t even come close to making us want to roll up our sleeves and be more productive. The underlying message of his speech was about how much the company had given to us (monetarily speaking), and, therefore, we owed something more back.

What he didn’t say that he should have:

  • Thank you for all you’ve done for the company to this point. I’ve appreciated all of the advances you’ve worked on for our company; we have one of the best R&D organizations in our business sector, and I know you’ve worked hard for that.
  • The world is changing and it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong, it’s just that we need to find new ways to be more productive and creative in order to remain competitive.
  • I will be talking to many of you soon about your ideas on how we can be more productive and competitive. This is probably the most important thing he could have said. We were the people doing the work. I bet we could have come up with lots of productivity ideas, and we would have enjoyed doing so.

We were more than well-paid employees. We were a dedicated, hardworking group of people who really felt connected to our company — until then. Things went downhill from there.

The words of a leader reflect their thoughts. It felt like he didn’t think much of us. We felt demeaned and devalued.

Those few small words that implied that we were overpaid lazy employees did a lot of damage, but so did what he didn’t say. We should have been able to look up to him for future guidance and leadership, but we never heard another word from him until the day the layoffs began.