Over the past few weeks, we have all faced many unexpected turns of events, and we continue to face uncertainty.  For businesses, at the heart of it all are our people and their overall wellbeing – their physical and mental health, their families, their roles in our organizations, and their financial security.  As leaders, it is overwhelming to consider how to help our people on all of these fronts and also fight for our businesses at the same time.  However, one of the most effective practices we have at our disposal in uncertain times is communication.  Let’s look at why. 

How you communicate in times of crisis whether it is a global pandemic or a “crisis” within your own organization matters. It has a direct impact on team member:

  • Hope and optimism
  • Psychological safety
  • Sense of job security and stability
  • Engagement
  • Sense of belonging, team, and togetherness
  • Focus
  • Understanding
  • Perspective
  • Performance and productivity
  • Sense of organizational empathy, care, and concern

And that’s just to name a few. You can likely think of other areas of impact.

To be most effective in times like these, leadership’s attention to communication is essential.  When done effectively, the right information is shared with others who should be kept informed in a timely manner and in ways that make them feel informed.  The best way to achieve this is by executing a regular, consistent, and repeatable communication protocol.

A strong protocol consists of three elements:

1. Proactive and frequent sharing of information

In times of crisis, frequency of communication must significantly increase in order to fill the inevitable information vacuum that people often fill with counter-productive speculation.  Thus, it is imperative that leadership be proactive to promote understanding of what is happening within the organization and to combat misinformation.  As your management team makes decisions and/or changes to respond to organizational and customer needs, identify key messages to share with the team. Establish a regular cadence of providing those messages through briefings or updates that are cascaded through the organization (see process below).  Communication from leadership will set the tone. 

2. A consistent and repeatable process

Within each organization, the communication process might be a little different; however, it is important to have a process and that it is executed consistently.  The benefit of a process is that it adds an element of predictability in a time where little can seem predictable. People know they will get information at regular intervals, even if part of it is a leader saying that they don’t have the answers right now, but they are working on them.  Consider establishing a process that includes these actions:  

  • At the end of each “crisis management” executive team meeting (e.g., daily, every other day, weekly), discuss team information needs and agree on what messages will be communicated.  
  • Define how key messages will be delivered (see “3” below) and by whom, at what level, and when. (Note – for certain items, the same message may need to be communicated by multiple levels).
  • Define who is responsible for communication to each group, ensuring that every team member is ultimately covered.

As an example, a typical cascade may include top leadership briefing team members weekly, or more frequently depending on the situation, and briefing managers even more often.  Managers share new information as available and often provide daily briefings to their teams to answer questions, clarify expectations and priorities, address concerns, assess team wellbeing, drive employee engagement and spark required actions. These can be followed up or supplemented by ad hoc one-on-one or group conversations as needed.

3. Multiple channels and methods to provide information and allow for two-way communication.

We all learn and listen to things in different ways, so varied communication platforms are helpful.  To connect and share information with your team, consider the use of brief video messages from leaders periodically, email, team meetings/calls, video or audio conferencing, one-on-one conversations, etc., and match the method or channel to purpose and sensitivity of the communication. In addition, be sure your communication is not just one-way.  Managers can serve as two-way conduits for information and feedback from “the front lines” on what they are experiencing. This is critical information for leadership to have. In addition, be proactive in identifying and providing other ways that employees can ask questions or seek information they may need, and again, allow for multiple channels. 

Creating the protocol isn’t enough. It’s using it effectively and enough that makes the biggest difference.  One of our biggest learnings from decades of working with organizations is that if you feel like you are overcommunicating you are probably communicating “just enough”.  Nearly every leader we have ever worked with has felt they communicate frequently, and nearly every team has reported they don’t feel they receive nearly enough communication from their leadership. Thus, err on the side of communicating more even if you don’t have all the answers. 

The true measure of leadership being effective in attention to communication is not “Are our people informed?”, rather, it is “Do our team members – feel informed?”  It’s a higher bar.  During this time frame, we encourage you to ask yourself that question, have every level of leadership ask that question, and use it to sense how your teams are feeling.  It’s one of the best steps we can take to impact our organizations.