The cat’s on the roof

I want to share one of my favorite management/leadership techniques. It starts with a joke:

A family is going on a vacation, and they ask the boy next door to take care of the cat while they’re away.

Halfway through the trip, they call the boy to ask how the cat is doing. He says, “I’m sorry, but the cat is dead.”

The family is distraught. They tell the kid that he should have broken the news more gently. They suggest that he could have said the cat is on the roof and won’t come down. Then the next time they called him, he could tell them the cat had died. That way they would have been more prepared for the bad news.

The next year, the family goes on another vacation. This time, they ask the boy to take care of the grandmother who is too elderly to travel.

Halfway through the trip, they call the boy to ask how grandma is doing.

He says, “grandma’s on the roof.”

Ok, it’s sort of morbid. Sorry about that. But there’s a lesson on communication hidden in that joke: Change can be hard on people, but the way it’s communicated can make it better, or a lot worse.

Most people have negative reaction to change. People go through something like a grieving period when they lose something they’re used to. This is true even if the change is for the better.

As the leader of a business, it’s your job to bring about change. That’s the only way to improve. But it’s also your job to communicate that change thoughtfully and carefully to your customers, employees, and other stakeholders. That's the key to building consensus and getting everyone moving in the same direction.

Give people time to process

Before announcing a change, stop, and consider whether or not people will need time to process it. If you think they will, you should metaphorically tell them the cat's on the roof.

Here are some examples:

  • If you've been working internally on a project that the team is excited about, but it's not really working out, you can bring up concerns with the team before outright killing the project. Make people aware there are problems so that if you ultimately need to announce that the project is getting terminated, people will already understand why, and potentially even support the decision.
  • If an employee is struggling to perform, they shouldn't be surprised to find out about it. Give them gentle feedback as early as you can. Hopefully that is enough for them to course correct on their own. If it's not, they should be prepared for more meaningful intervention (like a performance improvement plan) when the time comes. If it eventually becomes necessary to fire them for underperformance, that should not come as a surprise to them.
  • In 2020, we launched a major redesign of Less Annoying CRM. Most customers preferred the new version, but it still took some getting used to. We spent months (almost a full year actually) communicating via our newsletter, in-app pop-ups, the company blog, etc. not just that the change was coming, but why. By the time we actually rolled out the new design, virtually everyone was fully prepared for it.
  • Every week, I send out an internal newsletter to the whole company. These newsletters are a great way to set the stage for future changes. I often give updates on things we've been discussing in meetings without giving official announcements about any decisions (as I'll explain below, it's best if the official decisions haven't been made yet).

By giving people a heads up about possible upcoming change in advance, you're letting them process, grieve, and think through how they feel. When it comes time to make the change official, you'll get a much more level-headed and logical reaction rather than an emotional gut reaction.

Don't lie or manipulate

"Cat's on the roof" can be a great communication tactic, but if done incorrectly, it can end up being manipulative. If you 100% know that a change is coming and you lie and say you're not sure yet just to soften the blow, you might come across like the kid saying that grandma is on the roof.

Avoiding that trap involves some nuance, but there are a few things you can do to help:

  • Don't make final decisions until you've given people a chance to weigh in. In the internal newsletter I mentioned above, I often give updates about discussions I've been having, but then I'll say, "let me know if you have any thoughts." You obviously shouldn't do this if you're not genuinely interested in hearing feedback, but honestly, you should be open to feedback anyway, so this is a win-win.
  • Share multiple possibilities. Rather than just sharing what you want to happen, explain all the different options you've considered. If you don't do this, your audience might assume the issue is simpler than it is, or that you haven't given it appropriate thought. When you share a deep analysis of a topic and multiple different options you've been weighing, it shows people how hard the decision is, and when it ultimately comes time to make a final decision, everyone will understand how much thought you put into it.

Don't make people fill in the blanks

One of the greatest risks of this approach is that if you leave out details, people will use their imaginations to fill in the blanks, and most people tend to think up the worst thing possible. For example, if you're thinking about launching a new marketing campaign because sales have been slowing, don't tell your team, "Sales have been slow, so we're thinking about making some changes." I guarantee you some people will think that means there are going to be layoffs.

Instead, you need to provide enough context that people will understand the scope of the issue and not jump to incorrect conclusions.

I know it's tempting to be secretive about everything and wait until you're 100% sure before announcing something, but I encourage you to challenge yourself to be transparent, even before final decisions have been made.

Have thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear from you! I'm @TylerMKing on Twitter.