While some have been monitoring the threat of COVID-19 for a while, for many, the gravity of the situation seemed to spike incredibly quickly, turning our world upside down. Leaders in government, healthcare, and business are scrambling to deal with an unprecedented situation. They are being pressed to make decisions and communicate with speed in the absence of complete information and against a backdrop of chaos and anxiety.
Employees are looking to their leaders to be a steady presence during a time of chaos. How can leaders communicate competence while maintaining the human element of connection and why are these two elements so critical?
In a recent webinar I answered this important question and shared a framework and practical communication tips for keeping you and your people on track and engaged. To watch the full session, you can download it here.
After the presentation, several great questions came up from the audience that I want to share with you. Below are those questions and my best answers. This is an ongoing conversation, and I encourage you to keep the questions coming in via the comments section at the bottom of this page.
Q: What if you make a decision with urgency on imperfect information and it’s the wrong decision? Doesn’t it dent your credibility?
A: As a leader, you won’t get it right all-the-time and it’s okay to admit that. In fact, if it’s clear a bad decision was made and you don’t acknowledge that, you will hurt your credibility. During times of uncertainty, share what you know, and what you don’t. Be transparent about your decisions and why you are making them – including the fact that you are making a decision with, perhaps, incomplete information. Acknowledge that you need to move quickly and, as one of our webinar participants stated so well, “If you are clear in that you have imperfect information but there is a compelling need to act quickly, your people will forgive you much more than if you hold back info until you have it 100% right.”
When you have a trusting relationship and are authentic with your team members, you will have greater credibility with them. It’s okay to share what author Terry Pearce called “allowable weaknesses” which are areas where you are vulnerable and may need help from your team. In fact, sharing this information will often serve as a rallying cry to team members who will extend themselves to shore up the areas where you need help. Your credibility is more likely to be dented if you try to hide the fact that you don’t have all the answers, have made a bad decision, or pretend to be a perfect leader.
Q: How do you guide a leader on recovering when they’ve failed to connect? Can they recover?
A: A leader can recover if they fail to connect, but it’s something that most likely will require an intentional effort. Working on the essential element of connection, trust, is a good place to start. Trust is the foundation of any connected relationship. Connection happens when leaders express empathy, when they are authentic. However, to be both empathetic and authentic, you need self-awareness. If self-awareness does not come naturally to you as a leader, get coaching from a professional coach or from someone in your organization who can help you look inward, reflect, and become more aware of how you are coming across to others. You can recover if you are not able to establish connection with others, but it will require self-awareness and intention of action to build-it-up.
Q: How would you approach a CEO or business leader that has not been doing or following these communication practices?
A: It can be difficult to approach a CEO or business leader who hasn’t been putting these communication practices in place because I suspect the implication is that he or she thinks they have been doing just fine in their communication. And the further up you go in the organization, the harder it can be for someone to be courageous enough to let the leader know their communications are not as effective. If that leader has a trusted colleague who can provide the feedback, consider leveraging that relationship. Alternatively, an executive coach who can bring an outside perspective, be objective, and deliver tough messages in a way that they will be heard by a CEO or a business leader is another option. Finally, although not as timely, if your organization runs an employee engagement survey, or does pulse surveying, consider a question that will allow this issue to surface. Whether through a trusted colleague, outside coach, or survey feedback, the message needs to be shared objectively with the leader in a way that helps them understand the impact of that communication and its importance.
Q: How do we bridge the gap between furloughed staff and those left behind – prepare to rebuild our team when all return?
A: That is a great question and something I think leaders will be struggling with for a while to come. I think it’s important to consider both the furloughed staff as well as those who have maintained employment and may have “survivors guilt.” To the extent your organizational policy allows it, maintaining contact with your furloughed employees can help ease the transition back. This is not to say that you should be reaching out to them with extraordinary detail about the work that is happening while they are away – that could come across as insensitive to the fact that they are no longer involved. But keeping in contact at a cadence that feels appropriate to them will maintain connection. Upon return, it may take some time for the team to begin feeling cohesive again. First, get them realigned to the mission of the organization and the goals of your team – getting them to all rally around their shared purpose can bring them back together and focus them in the same direction. Second, build, or rebuild, the trust that they have in you as a leader and that they have in each other. Related to this, continue to work on creating an environment of psychological safety so that all team members feel safe contributing, surfacing new ideas, and feeling like those ideas will be valued by you and other team members. You might also need to more consciously create opportunities for rapport building – even if those happen virtually through ice breakers at the start of your meetings or other ways of sharing on an appropriate personal level.
Q: What’s the best way to influence other leaders to practice what was presented today?
A: Share the webinar link! In all seriousness, I think, if a leader wants to get better, they will be hope for some, sharing the evidence – articles and research – that demonstrate leaders who have both competence and connection are more successful will sway some. Still, others might be willing to practice this because they want to become better leader.
Q: How do you get around people filtering for what they want to hear?
A: This is tough because you can’t control another individual’s self-awareness and emotional intelligence and what you are asking about requires both. And the way you might help an individual with this issue can be highly dependent on your relationship with them. Are they a senior executive with whom you work? Is it difficult because of their level and the challenge with giving upwards feedback? Is the individual a direct report for whom you need to provide performance feedback? The nature of your relationship and the type of information you want them to hear will, in part, drive a good approach.
Be as clear as possible – use language that is direct and specific. Communicate frequently – if there are long gaps, people will fill-in-the-blanks and alter the message in a way you, perhaps, didn’t intend. When communicating one-on-one, you can check their understanding by using the simple statement, “Tell me more,” as a way to understand what is happening with the receiver of the message and as a way to determine if you are coming across the way you want to.
Finally, how you come across to others and your ability to give an individual more direct feedback will be highly dependent on the level of trust you have with that individual. In a relationship that has a strong foundation of trust, there is a greater ability to be direct with the information you share or the feedback you give and know that it will be received with positive intent. In this instances, you will be in a position to help clarify the message if you sense that filtering is taking place and your message is not getting through.
Q: How frequent is frequent? What do you share if you have no new news? I am trying to communicate to furloughed employees a couple times a week but struggle with keeping it fresh and on point.
A: If you are sensing that there is nothing new and the contact is not serving either you or the employee, it’s okay to decrease the level of contact, but you should be transparent about it. If you aren’t open about why you are going to reach out less often, your employee might start to wonder why you aren’t reaching out weekly and you run the risk that they start to fill in the void with misinformation. There is no magic answer to the frequency with which you should communicate with your furloughed employee but it is important to openly discuss the frequency that’s right for them – and for you. The current crisis is a strange combination of things moving quickly (news, counts, etc.) and everything standing still (no schools, no travel, some quarantines), which can make it hard to figure out how to handle communication. Establish a general agreed-to cadence with your employee, share what you know when you know it, be transparent and specific, and share what you don’t know. And remember to communicate for human connection in addition to communicate updates or logistical details.
Q: What do you do with, “In times of crisis, we need to just tell people what to do?” We have worked to create a collaborative space and staff are struggling with the change.
A: There is a difference between a true crisis and a place of uncertainty. In a true crisis, for example, with a medical situation or a first responder, the emergency may require more directive communication. In a situation that is a true crisis, it might be okay to tell someone what to do to save a life or present a dramatic situation from becoming worse. If my child were about to walk into the street without looking both ways, it’s okay to yell to get their attention and divert disaster. But I wouldn’t want to communicate that way on a regular basis.
What I think most business leaders are dealing with today is uncertainty more so than crisis. And I believe that, with uncertainty, you do have a moment-or-two to communicate in a more collaborative way. When you give space for your people and your teams to contribute their own ideas that will feel more empowered to take the actions required to help you, and your organization be successful. They may even surface ideas and approaches you might not have thought of that could be equally, if not more helpful, in solving team or organizational challenges. The most important thing you can do to make sure they feel comfortable doing this, is to create an environment of psychological safety – one in which individuals are free to surface ideas and know that those contributions will be valued even if they are not, ultimately, chosen. This last point is particularly clear because creating the space for collaboration doesn’t mean, as a leader, you have to go with what the group surfaces – it’s okay to make a decision that wasn’t surfaced by a team member. The important thing is that the contribution, and the person, felt considered and valued despite the ultimate decision that you, as a leader, will need to make.
Q: Any suggestions on how to face your fear when you don’t have all the answers or meaningful ways to help your employees and push through it?
A: I think being honest about those fears is an important thing for you, as a leader, to get through it. Finding a trusted colleague, or a coach, that you can talk with to sort through your emotions and your less logical thoughts can help you re-center. Self-talk can also help you get out some of your more negative emotions and help you shift to a more growth oriented mindset. Practicing self-care as you deal with change as a human being is also important – make sure you are taking care of yourself physically by eating well, exercising, getting sleep and meditating, if that is something that is accessible to you.
When you are in a better place, you can then turn to others and help them through the change. First, expressing empathy with your employees is a good starting point. Put yourself in their shoes, ask them how they are doing, and then tune in to their response. Second, help keep them focused on the contributions you need them to make to the organization and like those contributions to something bigger to increase their engagement.
When you need to communicate, be transparent about the fact that you don’t have all the answers. Communicate what you know, and what you don’t know. It’s okay to share your “allowable weaknesses” with your team – this is not to say you burden them with your own range of emotions. It is for this reason that you, as a leader, get support for yourself. But letting your team know where you have some challenges and could use their support typically gives them the opportunity to rally around you and provide even stronger contributions to ensure success.
About the Authors
Director, Strategy and Planning, GP Strategies Corporation.
Senior Director for Strategy and Planning, Leah focuses on bringing new products to market and enhancing the participant experience. She works with clients to understand their leadership and engagement challenges and consults with them on the creative solutions. Prior to joining GP Strategies, Leah had her own practice in executive coaching and consulting. She is a certified professional coach through an ICF accredited organization and is a Myers-Briggs practitioner. Leah has over seventeen years of experience in marketing, strategy, and product development in a corporate environment. She has also served as an adjunct faculty member in the fields of psychology and organizational psychology. She has a Master’s of Arts degree in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Sociology from Boston College where she graduated summa cum laude.