While leaders around the world have been tasked with supporting people through an incredibly challenging period over the past 18 months, the actions for leaders are the same. Whether it is responding to a global pandemic like Covid-19 or another crisis facing the business or team – when a crisis strikes people are thrust into the unknown, feelings of stress, anxiety and depression skyrocket causing tunnel-vision. At work this can lead to diminishing productivity because people’s energy is entirely caught up in worrying about their current reality.
A leader’s role in this situation is to do what they can to help regulate people’s nervous systems through calm and frequent communication, assist them in regaining a sense of control by providing timely and honest information and focus their attention on a more optimistic outlook. You don’t need to be a behavioural scientist or psychologist to be able to support your team in this way – you simply need to understand how to communicate effectively in a crisis. Following are five core guidelines.
1. Practice active listening
Good communication largely hinges on one’s ability to deeply listen and understand before speaking. Employees often feel that their voices are not heard or cared for. In a crisis, leaders must provide opportunities for individuals to share their concerns and ask questions, and to offer anonymous channels due to the potentially sensitive and personal nature of the concerns. Leaders must then prioritise responding to the concerns with transparency, honesty and as much as possible, with a calm optimism. This will contribute to growing psychological safety within organisations.
2. Increase frequency of communication
Frequent communication is critical. Individuals often enter a state of panic or shock during an emergency and cannot absorb information the first time it’s shared. Leaders need to repeatedly share the most crucial pieces of information with their teams via different mediums and back up any verbal communication with a written version. Keep communication timely, so employees feel comfortable that they are being kept in the loop.
3. Be transparent and honest
During a crisis, employees often look to their leaders for solutions. When the challenge is complex or unforeseen, it may take time to uncover the right approach. Leaders who rush to communicate solutions or simply withhold the truth out of fear of how people may react, are at risk of losing credibility. People respect open and honest communication; it builds trust and trust contributes to a feeling of safety. In unprecedented times, people are also looking to regain some semblance of control. Sharing information with transparency and honesty offers them this opportunity.
4. Maintain a realistic and unifying optimism
Part of a leader’s job is to raise the spirits of their people, but to do so in a way that is authentic. During crisis, leaders need to strike a balance between realism and optimism. This means not dismissing the fears or emotions of your employees, or making false promises but rather demonstrating that the organisation is aware of the hurdles that lay ahead and that they will offer every level of support that is available to them. Leaders can also express belief in the resilience and ability of their people to move through challenges together. This is a realistic, yet unifying message that helps people feel that they are in safe hands.
5. Lead with a calm demeanour
Leaders, you are human too. You are not exempt from the tidal wave of personal and professional worries that a crisis creates. This pressure is intensified by the dozens, hundreds or thousands of people looking to you for guidance. Your ability to maintain a calm demeanour even when the crisis is at its peak, is critical for building resilience within the organisation. A perception of defeat or fear will drive people to focus on all that there is to be afraid of, while a hopeful and calm demeanour, will open people up to possibilities, even in the face of the unknown. Again, this isn’t about false confidence, but rather truth communicated calmly. Practicing emotional regulation techniques such as conscious breathing and meditation can assist with this.