In your crisis management approach, focus first on communication

During a crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, you’re undoubtedly dealing with some level of “information overload.” From the barrage of news updates about a rapidly changing and evolving pandemic, to the endless torrent of communications in your inbox from companies and how they’re dealing with the crisis, to the best efforts of governments and health officials to provide accurate guidance, it’s natural to feel a bit overwhelmed by all of this.

Out of all the information, data, and speculation being thrown around, how do you decide what, when, and how to communicate with your team and organization? Leaders around the world are seeking best practices for communicating with employees during a crisis. So, how do you rise above the noise and communicate with impact?

At the Center for Creative Leadership, we consider communication one of the essential functions of a leader. In fact, it’s one of the “Fundamental 4” – the leadership skills we’ve found through our research that every leader, regardless of level, needs to master in order to succeed and thrive. Since it’s a fundamental skill, communication is always important, but during a crisis, communication is critical. People are thirsty for information. They want to know the current state of things, what is being done to keep the situation from getting worse, and when everything will be getting back to normal. And the pressure on leaders to provide impactful guidance and information is especially heightened in a crisis situation.

Here are some practical tips on what, when, and how to communicate in order to lighten the load and help you connect with your team and organization at a time when there is so much at stake.

banner with the text bring your organization to life online and pointing to custom virtual solutions from The Center for Creative LeadershipCommunicating in a Crisis: What?

  • Essential information that’s delivered in a quick, clear, and transparent manner.

People are overwhelmed with the amount of information coming at them. They’re on the lookout for essential information that can help them get through this crisis, but they’re also under tremendous pressure at work and at home, and they don’t have time to digest it all.

Focus on essential information and embrace brevity. Share what you know when you know it. Also, be honest — this is not the time to equivocate and fall back on corporate speak.

  • What you don’t know, in addition to what you do know.

No one has all the answers right now. But acting like you do will damage your credibility and your ability to connect with your people. Be honest and embrace the ambiguity of the situation, but also share what you’re able. People will appreciate and resonate with honest, direct messaging.

  • What people can look to for stability and guidance.

In a moment where it seems like everything is shifting and up for grabs, let others know what remains stable. Clarify and emphasize what is bedrock and unchanging. For many organizations, this might include their vision, mission, and values. Helping employees see how difficult decisions are being made with the organization’s values as guideposts can reassure them that there is a “method to the madness.” Reinforcing core commitments like “how we can make a positive impact” and “why we’re doing this in the first place” can instill meaning and purpose during a time of struggle.

Communicating in a Crisis: When?

  • Broadly, repeatedly, and through multiple means.

To stand out above the noise, don’t just rely on one particular medium or platform. Remember the three R’s: review, repeat, and reinforce. If information is shared only once (or through one medium), it cannot be assured that everyone has received it – or if they did, that they understand it.

Take the extra time to review information with your team, to repeat the information to help it sink in, and to reinforce the key points of your information with additional context or guidance. If in doubt, err on the side of overcommunicating and sounding redundant, rather than undercommunicating and running the risk of people not hearing or understanding your message.

  • Before questions and concerns are submitted, when possible.

During a crisis, people can be so overwhelmed with just getting through their lives that they may not have the capacity to reach out with questions and concerns. Taking the initiative to connect with your team and answer the questions they likely have will show them that you’re on the front line dealing with the crisis, and that you’re willing to support them. Of course, you should also provide a space for your team members to share their concerns and ask questions that haven’t been answered.

  • After you’ve taken care of yourself.

This may sound selfish, but it’s extremely difficult to lead others if you’re not in a good place. Take some time to take care of yourself, whether that’s through being kinder to yourself through constructive self-talk, building an awareness of distorted thought patterns, or just taking some time to be patient with how you’re feeling right now. If you can get yourself in a better place, you’ll be more able to help and lead others.

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Communicating in a Crisis: How?

  • Be human.

Embrace the full range of emotions you and others are experiencing right now and be transparent about how the current challenges are impacting you. Demonstrating vulnerability can help generate trust between you and others, especially in a difficult situation. You can further improve your ability to connect by pausing before giving feedback on an employee’s performance to ask how they’re doing. A powerful question to ask your team is “what dominant emotion are you experiencing right now?” This will likely lead to a much richer conversation than simply saying “how are you doing?”

Connecting on a human level communicates care, reduces the threat response, and encourages neuroplasticity – critical fundamentals for healthy teams, creative problem solving and innovation, and sustainable performance, particularly under stress.

  • Get eyeball to eyeball.

With all the technology currently available, there’s no excuse to not at least occasionally connect with your team on video. There’s a qualitative difference in the communication that occurs. You’ll not only be able to read emotions through facial expressions and body language, you’ll also gain insights that will allow you to connect on a more personal level when you notice a pet or family member wandering by in the background.

  • Listen to understand.

Don’t start by trying to solve people’s problems right away. Take a wider lens. When you listen to your people, listen for the facts, feelings, and values they’re expressing. By starting with understanding, you can get the whole message and help others feel heard. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed — as a leader your job isn’t always to solve problems but sometimes to just sit back and listen. Also, be prepared to deal with conflict and negative emotions — people deal with crisis situations differently, so be patient, listen, and respond to your people with grace.

Listening to understand is one of the 4 core behaviors in our Better Conversations Every Day™ program, available in a live-online option delivered by CCL experts or as a licensed program.

  • Focus on the person, not the problem.

Even when it’s your intent to help others with their problems, avoid the impulse to jump in with your own solutions. Instead, ask thought-provoking questions that help surface their understanding and insight to help them come up with their own solutions. This gives others a sense of empowerment during a time when they may be feeling powerless. Trying to solve everyone’s problems for them during a crisis is an express lane to your own burnout. That helps no one.

Communicating in Times of Crisis – and Beyond

Focusing on improving communication within your organization will not only help you through the current crisis, but will also help you navigate the changed future that comes next. And with a strong set of communication skills established, your people will be able to focus on executing the actions that lead to the greatest impact and move your organization forward.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

The culture of your organization will determine your ability to thrive in the changed world that emerges post-COVID. Learn how our Better Conversations Every Day™ program, available in an online or licensed format, can help transform your culture, build coaching skills, drive business outcomes, and create lasting change at scale.

This article was authored by Chuck Ainsworth, Shaun Martin, and George Hallenbeck with additional contributions from Gene Klann. 

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