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Leading Through (the Coronavirus) Crisis: Nine Guiding Principles for Effective Communication

Jonathan Z. Gottlieb, Ph.D. & Cailin K. O’Riordan, Ph.D.

Mar 30, 2021

As leaders are confronted with a crisis, they often seek advice in thinking about what to do and how to do it. As organization consultants and executive coaches, this has been our recent experience with the current Coronavirus. This fast-evolving situation has senior and other leaders asking about their important role in navigating the crisis on behalf of their organizations and employees. In addition to their questions about specific changes such as whether to have employees work remotely, whether to curtail travel, and what meetings to cancel or continue, they often want to know how to use themselves as an effective “tool” as they address and manage the Coronavirus crisis. Our focus in this article is about leaders’ important role in communicating with their employees. From our discussions with many of our current clients and conversations over the years with other clients who were in crisis management mode, we have developed a set of guiding principles with summary actions leaders can use to be most effective with the what and how of communications.

Get and Act Aligned

Achieving leadership alignment on key messages is critical, and it has to happen quickly. If messages from leaders vary or are inconsistent, the result can be confusion and loss of productivity. In addition, mixed messages can result in a lack of trust that leadership is aligned and has their act together. We know that most employees get information from their immediate supervisors. We also know that there is often a drop off in communication through successive levels of leadership. Leaders can accomplish alignment in messaging through the use of larger communication formats such as broadcast messages and company internal communication vehicles. Another way is to supplement this by providing mid-level leaders and first line supervisors with talking points and FAQs that are updated regularly so all are sharing the same messages.

Set Clear Expectations

While there is disruption, the work has to continue as much as possible. Leaders have to acknowledging the challenges ahead while asking employees to do their best to keep their businesses moving forward – asking them to do and focus on the hard work of the moment. It can also be helpful for leaders to share what they believe staff expect of them during the challenging times, including constant reassessment, regular communication, and ongoing concern for their welfare. Times of crisis can be exhausting for employees, as they are trying to work while also being concerned about family and friends. Leaders have an opportunity to encourage self-care as employees are often working differently during these times, and in some situations, they are working longer hours than usual. Being aware of the impact the crisis is having on employees and encouraging them to take care of themselves demonstrates leaders’ ability to be compassionate.

Be Clear About the Challenges

If leaders try and sugarcoat the challenges a crisis such as the Coronavirus challenge brings, it will only serve to undermine further any trust. Leaders have to state clearly the challenges and problems that need to be addressed – current and likely future. They need to talk about what to do and what not to do in the near-term given most people’s bias towards action and their desire to help and not knowing the best way how. By doing this, leaders demonstrate they are knowledgeable and capable of understanding the breadth of the challenges. In addition, this is an opportunity for leaders to demonstrate empathy for their employees, especially those on the front lines. Ignoring fears creates distance from leaders and ultimately more fear. And fear can quickly paralyze an organization at a time when engagement and focus are essential.

Share Plans

There are two important aspects of sharing plans: sharing the plan is ‘in process’ of being developed or will be an ongoing effort with refinements over time, and sharing the actual plans. If being formulated, employees need to know this is in process and when they will get more information. All too often, leaders forget to let their employees know that they have pulled together their teams or a group of experts to develop plans and when these will be shared. Yet acting quickly is important so that once known, leaders quickly articulate plans that fit their organization needs and address meaningfully the challenges posed. They can share what needs to change so employees are aware of any restrictions or changes in the ways they will be working. In addition, sharing what does not change helps to create a sense of some stability. By sharing plans, leaders demonstrate that they are on top of the situation and have thought it through – bolstering the view that they are competent while also creating a sense of employee confidence in them and their teams.

Have a Bias Towards Action

For leaders to focus their time and attention effectively on creating the plan for managing the impact Coronavirus has on their teams, customers, and suppliers/vendors, they could engage employees who have a bias towards action. Employees who thrive in times of crisis and remain level-headed can be a real asset to leaders. By engaging those employees who are at their best when taking action, leaders can execute important tasks needing to be accomplished. Given employees with a bias-toward-action will likely do something even if undirected to do so, leaders can engage these team members effectively by having them help in co-creating or execute the plan. The most effective leaders know what to manage themselves and what actions their teams can manage better with more time and attention dedicated to the task at hand.

Be Transparent

It is important for leaders to be clear about what they know and share what they are doing to get more information for questions they cannot address immediately.
Employees will eventually find out the “truths”, so minimizing or hiding important information does not work well and only serves to undermine trust. This is not to suggest sharing confidential information about specific employees. Yet it is important to share enough information that it does not appear leaders are hiding or distorting the truth.
This openness on the part of leaders helps further employees’ trust and confidence in their leaders. It also models for their employees how best to manage in the face of uncertainty – no one has all the answers – so bringing employees along through that process can be developmental for them.

Provide a Sense of Hope

This may seem strange, yet employees also watch the demeanor of their leaders for nonverbal clues. How leaders comport themselves, along with what they say and the actions they take send messages to employees regarding whether the leaders are hopeful or not for a successful resolution of the situation. This means avoiding projecting a sense of panic or being worried about what will happen. It is easy in stressful times to react to criticism. It will come and how leaders handle it should represent the leadership brand for which each leader wants to be known. This also means avoiding making the situation about oneself and staying focused on the organization and its employees.
Communicating an awareness of the depth and breadth of the challenge that is also hopeful can bring employees along, for example “I know this is a huge challenge and a disruptive time for all of us, and it is creating a lot of fear for some. We have weathered other challenges in the past, and I have every confidence that we have a great team and we will get through this one successfully.” This tells employees their leaders know there is an impact, that they have empathy for their concerns, yet they are hopeful for a positive outcome. Avoid saying the crisis is not as bad as is being suggested, minimizing employee fears, or suggesting that everyone will be just fine. This only serves to decrease confidence in leaders and add to employee fears, and on top of that it may not be truthful. It also leads employees to believe that leadership lacks authenticity and does not have the situation under control. It’s a balancing act to be relatable when relaying their understanding of employees’ concerns while also conveying competence in leading them through the crisis effectively.

Use Two-Way Communications, and Do It Often

Regular two-way communications during times of crisis are important, using multiple methods including meetings, email, intranet, etc. People generally have preferences with regard to how they get information, so using multiple methods helps get the information out there. Frequent communications can help staff stay informed of changes, provide them with updates regarding the situation at hand, allow them to ask questions or express concerns, and continue to reinforce that leaders have plans that are being executed. Some leaders create a timely and short-term 10@10 meeting structure, meaning ten minutes at 10am daily to provide key updates around the circle of team members. These and other modalities also provide an opportunity to address rumors before they take on a life of their own in or outside of the organization.
In addition, during times of crisis, leaders need to be more visible and listen purposefully to employees, at the same time being empathic and sharing new information as it becomes available. By listening, leaders can get a better sense of what concerns employees are having and address these more broadly when patterns emerge. Simply asking “How are you doing with all of this?“ and then listening carefully demonstrates a leader’s interest. In addition, most employees have families that are experiencing the crisis, so asking how one’s family is doing or asking employees to thank their families for being patient as the employees are working differently or more hours can go a long way to building relationships and understanding.
Pay more attention to when employees go above and beyond. Make sure you are recognizing your employees along the way. Small gestures such as buying lunch for employees who need to be onsite, or gift cards that can be used at a later date can go a long way to telling employees they are valued.
Finally, use this as an opportunity to emphasize those aspects of the organization’s culture that will assist with successfully resolving the challenges. For example, if collaboration is an important tenet of the culture and employees are being asked to work remotely, reminding them of the need to be more diligent about collaborating and engaging their teammates with technology tools and video meetings can be helpful to continued engagement.

Promote Self-Care

An article from Harvard Business Review titled Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time speaks to actions employees and leaders can practice on a daily basis in order to maintain higher levels of energy. However, during times of crisis, most of us forgo self-care or believe we simply do not have time. For leaders, this can lead to missteps that are otherwise avoidable. Practicing (and promoting) self-care, including moments to take a deep breath and reset, getting sufficient rest when possible, eating properly, exercising when possible, thinking before speaking, knowing and managing one’s own signs of stress and exhaustion, and other actions can go a long way to helping leaders win the marathon of the crisis.

By paying attention to these guiding principles, leaders have an opportunity to enhance their effectiveness during the current Coronavirus and subsequent crisis situations. They will emerge stronger with the positive aspects of their leadership brands reinforced and expanded upon. And their employees and organizations will be better off as a result of the information that will be shared, plans that will be easier to execute, and knowledge that their leaders care deeply about their welfare and the ongoing success of their organizations.

Jonathan Z. Gottlieb, Ph.D. is an organization consultant, executive coach, team coach, and trusted advisor to senior leadership. Jonathan has a proven track record consulting to senior leadership regarding strategic organization change and alignment, and developing high-performing executive leaders and their teams, all in pursuit of higher levels of organization performance.

Cailin K. O'Riordan, Ph.D. is a business advisor, talent strategist, and developer of high performing leaders and organizations with a focus on driving business outcomes. Cailin has a top-tier performance record of diagnosing, designing, and delivering talent, leadership, organizational and cultural efforts.

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