The year 2020 will be etched forever in the history of humankind. A time when we slammed the brakes on exponential growth and industrialization. A moment when we were forced to question our habits and patterns. A reality when human isolation became the new norm.
During this period, what I found fascinating was observing how leaders across the world communicated information regarding COVID-19. What patterns did they have? What was unique in their individual style? Which ones were the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of leadership communication?
The intention of this article is not to finger-point at anyone, but rather learn and master our leadership communication within organizations during stressful periods.
Based on my observations as an advisor and speaker on human behavior and communication, today in my first AIHR article, I share five tips on how to communicate with your teams, clients and customers in a time of crisis; such that it not only uplifts people’s morale but also strengthens your organization holistically.
1. Fact over belief.
One interesting pattern observed early on, was how some leaders communicated their personal beliefs over scientific facts about the virus, such as:
- It is a media trick.
- It is just a little flu.
- Citizens may already have been infected and developed antibodies to stop virus proliferation.
In addition, fake COVID cures began circulating social media platforms, ranging from gargling bleach to self-prescribing hydroxychloroquine (anti-malaria drug) among many other claims. In fear of ‘what if’, misinformed civilians began practicing these unwarranted health recommendations with the hope that they could avoid contracting the virus or rid themselves of it.
So, where lies the problem? The moment it becomes evident that critical information being shared is based on an unwarranted belief rather than data, your credibility will be questioned and people’s trust in you will be gone. When communicating with your colleagues, clients or customers, base your information on data-backed reason, logic, and rationale, to keep things clear, specific and professional.
2. Truth hurts but matters.
Possibly one of the most uncomfortable experiences for people is telling the truth. Especially when the feedback is not positive. The COVID-19 crisis brought this to light, wherein some leaders were hesitant to inform the public about a dangerous viral outbreak, fearing panic and backlash.
Personality traits, interpersonal dynamics, cultural nuances, and many more complexities play a part. For example, what might be considered normal direct feedback in The Netherlands, may be perceived as rude or disrespectful in Asia. You might not want to be the harbinger of bad news and invite the wrath of the listener who had different expectations. You might not want to upset your professional relations and jeopardize your career by sharing the bitter truth. However, there will come a time when one cannot hide the truth from people anymore, which will only invite more anger, outrage and complete loss of trust. A damaged reputation like that will be very difficult to recover from.
Being truthful and transparent during leadership communication in a crisis requires:
- The leader/ manager creates an environment of psychological safety for the team.
- It’s not just what you say. It’s how you say it.
- Focus not on the negative now, but the improvement ahead.
While telling them the truth and telling them to take it seriously, acknowledge the fears and doubts in the minds of people and use data-based evidence to support your words, such that they know your attention is focused on their safety and stability.
3. Don’t wait till it’s too late.
How often have you come across someone who waits until the very last moment to break bad news? News that if conveyed earlier, could have avoided unnecessary stress and repercussion? Happens too often, doesn’t it?
I clearly remember early March 2020. While the situation in China was grim and Europe was finding COVID-19 cases cropping up across the continent, there was still a nonchalance in the air among several European political leaders. Shaking hands, laughing and hugging on camera. No heads up, no warning, no critical advice on how to protect yourself as a civilian. People continued to go on ski trips in massive numbers, celebrate carnival, attend packed parties, concerts and conferences without a care in the world.
Then suddenly, one fine day, it hit us in the face with a shocking number of COVID patients and deaths. Europe was no longer safe.
Why did this happen? We often think that waiting until the last moment buys us time, but it is a recipe for disaster. We will be forced into disaster management, by when the situation is far out of hand to deal with calmly and effectively. It will take significant time for people to accept the new advice, adapt their behaviors and see positive results.
The leaders who embraced early intervention measures, informed the public timely, shut down tourism and imposed early lockdowns, saw the pandemic get under control so effectively that it not only limited the virus-related deaths, but some of these countries were also able to support other countries with supplies to help combat the virus.
4. Empathy empowers.
Do you remember the day you were told to work from home? Events canceled and meetings postponed? Ongoing contracts halted?
Companies and businesses tried staying relevant by offering massive discounts, to no avail. No one was buying. The market had completely frozen up.
As we switch from performance to survival during such stressful periods, one often overlooked aspect is empathy. For and from every person involved in the chain.
As tempting as it is to exert control and pursue your client and customer… I would ask you to first pause.
Observe them keenly. Observe their behaviors, their choices. Are they open for a conversation? What are their core fears? What struggles are they facing? What is their need? Is there truly something you can do to take their pain and stress away? Give them the space to introspect. Give them the space to postpone the discussion for another time. Give them the space to ignore you.
Being understanding and empathetic towards their current state of mind will ensure your relationship being relevant for them in the future. A Scandinavian prime minister made the unique decision to invite only the children of her country to a meeting and inform them all about the coronavirus answering all their questions and explaining that it was OK to feel scared. This not only won the heart of her nation but of people across the world and is a fantastic example of great leadership communication.
As a leader in your organization, empathize with the stress and uncertainty your employees may be facing. Calling out the pink elephant in the room can be the biggest relief during such times. It not only reassures people but brings them together.
5. Act now, think ahead.
We often forget that alongside our rational and critical-thinking brain, we also have a limbic ‘lizard’ brain. The same brain, which when triggered by stressful situations, hoards toilet paper, makes emotionally volatile decisions and is consumed by fearful short-term thinking.
Today, we see people troubled with questions like “How am I going to deal with this?” “What is going to happen to my job?” “Can I get through this?” Fear of failure, fear of uncertainty and fear of instability triggers the limbic brain to become distressed. Understandable? Absolutely. Effective? There might be a better way.
Looking back to when world leaders advised social isolation or imposed stricter lockdowns, what stood out as a pattern in their leadership communication was the reassuring aspect of looking ahead. Why we’re going through this difficult period of restriction now, to protect our future ahead.
Let’s translate that to the professional world. Yes, your normal has now changed. There are so many things you can’t do, that brought high performance and effective results.
In the larger scheme of things, let me ask you – what can you do? How can you invest this time to improve your future? What can you learn? Who can you collaborate with? How can you develop your personal leadership, mindfulness and professional skills?
Our short- term vision helps us achieve goals. Don’t let that vision become so narrow that it uproots our balance, blocking our vision past the immediate wins and losses. We must think ahead. See the big picture. Explore how our experience and insights will be relevant for a new normal in the future ahead.
In a nutshell
Yes, a crisis period is challenging. Yet, how we choose to communicate and engage with people can transform the choices, behaviors, and decisions people make. With your leadership communication, you have the power to bring people together and create significant positive change. Focus on communicating facts over belief, being truthful, being timely, being empathetic and showing the vision ahead, to truly embody the presence of a leader who persuades, influences and inspires their people.
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