By Anja van den Berg
Every leader knows that communication during a crisis is critical. Yet, the COVID-19 crisis has brought with it a myriad of spin-off predicaments for which most leaders were not prepared. “There is scant empirical research on what to communicate to employees amid a crisis,” Brooks Holtom, a professor of management, explains.
To help leaders fine-tune their communications practices, a team of researchers created an assessment designed to measure employee satisfaction with the organisation’s overall communication during the COVID-19 crisis. The evaluation was completed by 10 for-profit, non-profit, and government organisations and received a total of 830 responses between March 24 and April 22.
Below is the key takeaway for leaders:
- Communicate often.
How the business approaches communication can make or break employee commitment to their companies. Most leaders need to interconnect with their team much more often than they think is necessary. Regular contact lowers anxiety and uncertainty and ensures that the message endures. Moreover, different people may need to hear messages in different ways and through various channels. While leaders may experience fatigue from repeating core messages, they need to realise team members need to hear these messages multiple times.
- Provide safe channels for giving feedback.
Employees must be able to express their concerns to leaders without fear of retribution, Holtom explains. “Organisational leaders must communicate the channels available to offer feedback and should emphasise how much they care about hearing from employees at all levels.” Provide them with a variety of channels, for example an HR task team, a dedicated senior leader, one-on-one discussions with a manager and an anonymous suggestion channel. Offering choices about how to give feedback helps ensure that people will do so, which, in turn, increases their satisfaction with their company’s actions.
- Address concerns about job security.
Understandably, people are concerned about their positions. Transparency is vital, and leaders should reassure team members that their employment is secure when this is indeed the case. When it is not, however, employees appreciate knowing all they can as soon as possible so they can plan accordingly. Research shows that leaders who are used to feeling highly effective and in control avoid acknowledging uncertainty and bad news because they find it stressful or guilt-inducing. It’s not going to be easy, but leaders must deliver the tough news in a timely and frank manner.
- Provide a plan for the future.
As people adapt, influential leaders increasingly focus on helping people to make sense of events. The search for meaning is intrinsic to recovery from trauma and crisis. Leaders can structure a meaningful narrative for their employees to invoke common culture and values as touchstones for healing and strength. Set clear goals and present a plan on how you plan to achieve them. Be transparent about what the organisation will achieve during and after the COVID-19 crisis. Where you are not able to communicate with certainty – for example, when international travel restrictions will be lifted – avoid hard and fast estimates. Instead, be explicit that you’re sharing an opinion, acknowledge uncertainty, and give the criteria you will use to determine a course of action.
The immediacy and uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis tempt leaders to “shoot from the hip” in communicating with anxious stakeholders or making strategic moves. Given how quickly and drastically the pandemic has changed people’s personal and work lives and all the uncertainty that lies ahead, people are looking to their leaders more than ever for guidance and support. As a leader, what you say and how you convey it will play a significant part in determining how your organisation performs during these difficult times.
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2020/07/5-tips-for-communicating-with-employees-during-a-crisis
McKinsey & Company: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/a-leaders-guide-communicating-with-teams-stakeholders-and-communities-during-covid-19