13 tips for better crisis communication

Richard Branson describes communication as the most important skill a leader can possess. And now, more than ever, employees are looking to their leaders for clear and strong communication.

The demands and expectations being placed on leaders right now are like no other time in history. While many employees turn to their leaders for strong support and messages, we must be aware that they themselves are navigating their daily communications through uncharted waters – both verbally and emotionally. This is especially difficult when thousands of Australians are losing their jobs on a daily basis.

On March 26, when retail chains temporarily closed their doors, 14,000 Australians were left unemployed overnight. According to Russell Zimmerman, the former executive director of the Australian Retailers Association, retail is the largest private sector employer in Australia, employing 1.3 million people. When dealing with such catastrophic job losses, leaders have to find a way to communicate with their employees who are either on a hiatus or still managing areas of the business that require attention.

When executed effectively, communication can alleviate stress. Studies have shown that leaders, in particular, have a special role in reducing employee anxiety.

As communications professor Paul A Argenti stated in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Employees are your most important constituency and function as ambassadors to the community. If they aren’t informed and don’t understand what is going on, communications outside of the organisation will be more difficult. The company needs to demystify the situation for employees, put everyone’s mind at ease, and provide hope for the future.”

Given the uncertainty surrounding today’s environment and the ever-changing landscape, a crucial element of the leader’s role is to promote psychological safety, where employees feel safe to ask questions and openly discuss their concerns without fear of repercussions.

Here are 13 tips to help effectively communicate with your employees:

Be human. Given the nature of this pandemic, today more than ever, you have full permission to be human. No-one expects you to have all the answers, so don’t be afraid to show vulnerability when communicating.

Be decisive. Set a clear intention of what you want your communication session or notes to convey. What do I want my audience to be left feeling, thinking and doing after I communicate with them? Be clear and decisive in your messaging.

Be courageous. Do not shy away from the harsh facts. It takes courage to communicate when times are tough and you don’t have all the answers, yet communicating with courage elicits trust, no matter how negative the message.

Be authentic. Academic researcher and social psychologist Dr Gary Alan Fine defines authenticity as “sincere, innocent, original, genuine and unaffected”, while cognitive behavioural scientist professor Joseph Petraglia found that the importance of authenticity is that it “enables individuals to understand how information can relate to their everyday lives”. Employees are craving authentic information they can relate to their daily lives.

Be clear and concise. According to Bain & Company, “mental noise in high-stress situations reduces the ability to process information by 80 per cent, on average. Under stress, people have difficulty hearing, understanding and recalling information”. This is a time where messages need to be heard, recalled and digested. With this in mind, it is important to keep messages clear, short and sharp.

Demonstrate emotional intelligence. Psychologist Howard Gardner defines emotional intelligence as “the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them”. By tapping into your emotional intelligence, you can approach this highly sensitive time with compassion, care and empathy. Put yourself in your employees’ shoes to understand their anxiety. You won’t get it right all the time, yet by demonstrating you understand their perspective in this situation it will enhance your ability to support your teams through this challenging time.

Communicate with facts and transparency. Even if you don’t have all the facts, be honest and open to maintain credibility. In today’s environment, your team will understand if you concede on what you are not sure about. Be willing to declare that you don’t have or know all the answers. Share the numbers behind the scenes. Share that you are responding to what is needed. Let your teams know you are working on how long you can keep going. Be transparent. Your teams want to understand the calculations behind your decisions. Your teams want visibility of the facts that led them to your choices.

Communicate with feeling. It’s OK to be vulnerable.

Eradicate fear and gain trust. Don’t let the fear of making a mistake paralyse you. You will gain trust by having the courage to say, “this is the best answer I have for today”.

Check in. Begin your session by checking in with your team – feel the temperature of the session. Even if it is a big group.

You can have people raise their hand over zoom when checking in on how they are feeling. It creates a collaborative environment and brings everyone into the room.

Positivity infusion. After checking in, ask your team, or even if you are working one-on-one, “have you had a little win you can share with me/us today? or “share with me/us a spark of joy”.

Reread your emails. Given the rapid increase in emails being sent, it is more important than ever to acknowledge that messages can get lost in translation over email. Tonality can be misconstrued. Before sending emails, take a break, then return to your desk, reread the email before sending it through. If it is a significant email, have another person check it before disseminating it to your team or customers.

Post regularly. This can be a physical or virtual location. Your team wants to feel connected. In times like these, when many are in isolation, employees start to realise their company is

their community. Attempt to keep your employees updated

via timely information rather than waiting until you know all of the answers.

As leaders, it is important that you engage your employees with:

Consistency

Clarity

Care

And for the leaders out there reading this article, take care of yourselves. Thank you for leading others while having to lead yourselves in these tumultuous times.

 Remember the words you are using to support others should be used on yourselves. Acknowledge the difference you are making in keeping our economy and the hearts and souls of your teams humming along.

Leora Givoni is an executive coach, communications strategist and founder of Small Act Major Impact. Leora works closely with individuals and businesses to cut overwhelm while creating clarity and unforgettable messages.

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