Communication in Times of Change / Crisis

Even the best leaders and organizations struggle with communication. Add organizational change or a crisis, and matters get worse quickly.

What do leaders need to do better when business as usual becomes anything but usual?

[If you prefer learning via video instead of reading, watch below]

I’ve coached executives and consulted with organizations on change management and communication efforts around leadership changes, mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, regulatory challenges, budgetary stresses, market pressures, shrinking customer bases, and even damage control. Leaders often reach out to me after their best efforts to “wing it” fall short.

The problem is, winging it doesn’t always work. Think about a ship setting out to sea. If the captain can’t communicate with the crew about an upcoming storm or a change in course, that ship and crew is in for trouble!

Here are 4 ways to improve your communication during change or crises—when you may be battered by storms. If you prefer to absorb information via video vs. reading, click here.

1. Communicate facts.

Too often “facts” get drown out by rumor mills. To counteract gossip, leaders must share relevant facts about what is happening. That doesn’t mean sharing every play by play of what the leadership team debated. But it’s essential for leaders to share what is true, positive, and helpful. Anticipate any questions employees may have, and answer them before they are asked. Unless a topic is “double-top-secret” and must be kept confidential, communicate what you know.

Julie is an ER nurse caring for COVID patients. She’s scared and frustrated (along with most of her peers), because the hospital doesn’t have the PPE they need. Making matters worse, the hospital isn’t sharing information about how many cases they have or how many they’re expecting. Maybe there’s a good reason the administration for not sharing, but in the communicating vacuum, nurses are relying on hearsay, speculation, and worst-case scenario thinking. What would build Julie’s trust in her leadership? Communication!

Leaders, OWN your communication network by filling it with relevant, meaningful information. Don’t let the uninformed have the loudest voice.

2. Anticipate fears, and communicate empathy.

For some leaders, factual communication is easy, but they struggle discussing emotional topics. Sadly, the issue many employees deal with in times of change and crisis is emotional. For example, COVID-19 threatens lives—theirs and their loved ones. If that’s not emotional, nothing is.

This is where facts alone don’t cut it. Saying, “98% survive” or “we’re in a global recession” may be true (factual), but it does nothing to sooth emotions or to demonstrate empathy. Empathy and honesty are the most powerful leadership tools to guide employees through difficult times. Tailor your communications to address employee fears and negative emotions before they take deep root and destroy morale or productivity.

“Daddy, are you sick?” my daughter Alana asked me when she found me at home midweek instead of at work.

“Yes, honey,” I answered honestly.

“Daddy, are you going to die?” she asked, her face painted with worry. Alana was three years old, and due to the death of a friend, she had her first understanding of death.

Were I to respond honestly with facts alone, I might have said something like: “Yes, honey, in fact, I am going to die. See, from the time we are born, our cells slowly stop regenerating. So in effect, we are all dying. Now go play.”

That would have sent her into therapy! Instead, I understood the root of her question and shared facts along with empathy.

“No, honey. I have allergies. That’s why my eyes are swollen. I am fine, I’m just stuffy. Do you want pancakes?”

Crisis communication requires a willingness to be real and to share our emotions. If you’re afraid, tell them. If you’re frustrated, say that. Say things like, “I know some of you are wondering how you’ll pay the bills. You’re worried if our company can survive this. I understand.”

But also include true information that is helpful and positive. Give them hope. What reasons do you have to believe that you’ll survive this crisis? For example, did your company survive Y2K? The 2008-2009 recession? Are you working around the clock to come up with solutions? Do you have a corporate value of compassion that you intend to apply even in this crisis? Tell them what they CAN hang their hats on, even if it’s just that you are all in it together.

3. Tell them what they can expect next.

In the absence of information, people fear the worst, especially in a time of upheaval. Let people know when and how you will update them. Will the next communication come from a corporate email, text, online resource, phone call from you? How will they get updates about the company reopening? When will we have more PPE? Let them know what kind of things you’ll be communicating, and who will share it. And most importantly, follow through with your outlined communication to maintain trust.

4. Instead of making promises, share your guiding principles.

Early on in this crisis, I heard a vice president tell his employees there would be no layoffs. He was wrong. Layoffs happened within two weeks. Other organizations made similar errors.

Don’t promise something you can’t deliver. Instead of making promises, share guiding principles like the following: (1) keep employees safe, (2) take care of customers, and (3) help the organization survive. Let employees, customers and shareholders know you will be making decisions based on meeting those three objectives.

If I can help with your change initiatives or communication improvement plans, please send me a message or call me.



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