Communicating in Uncertain Times

I talk to many business leaders and managers who feel trapped between a stone and a hard place, as they deal with all the uncertainty that the pandemic brought about abruptly, not knowing when their employees will be able to return to the office or how things will be when they do. However in the midst of all this uncertainty business leaders and managers still need to be in constant communication with their teams, which is where the entrapment feelings comes along. What information — and how much of it — should business leaders and managers disclose about the health of the organisation? How can a manager be candid about the possibility of pay-cuts and layoffs without then demoralising the team? During this period of uncertainty, how can a manager offer assurance without giving people false hope?

Accomplishing both of these tasks, is no easy feat. Here are recommendations for communicating with your employees during this uncertain time.

Make sure your feel strong and prepared: Before you utter or write a word to your team, you need to understand the challenge that lies before you. As a manager, your goal is to be the person your employees turn to for guidance and direction. The right mindset is critical and prepare as you would for battle. Stick to your routines as much as you can. Eat well, exercise, and try to get plenty of sleep.

Make a plan: Next you need a strategy for how and when you will communicate with your team about the situation as it’s evolving. When your organisation is in crisis, you need to communicate early and often. Acting like an ostrich with its head-in-the-sand approach wont’ work here. Your team needs to know what to expect in terms of when and how frequently they’ll receive information from you as well as from your company’s leadership. Ideally your organisation has created a central source where employees can pose questions. Encourage your employees to use this resource so that the information provided directly addresses their concerns and that they can get information from the source.

Navigate your conversations with care: Consider your audience. Think about your employees’ perspective. They would want to believe that leadership isn’t hoarding information from them. Allay their fears as much as you can.

Be humble: You don’t have a great deal of clarity for what lies ahead and so you need to admit what you don’t know. Employees are likely to ask you whether there will be layoffs, and while you’ve been told that’s up for discussion, you aren’t sure whether they will happen and you don’t how deep they’ll go. So honesty is the best policy. Saying that you wish you could tell exactly what is going to happen, but all you can promise is giving updates as soon as you know them, is a credible and plausible response.

Don’t sugarcoat: You may be tempted to gloss over news that won’t be well received. The desire to alleviate your team’s anxiety is understandable but be cautions as it does no one any favours and likely to dent your credibility as a leader.

Be responsible: No matter what, if you haven’t gotten the greenlight to share information about layoffs or pay-cuts, you just cannot say anything. Even hinting is not recommended as you have a responsibility to the company. Even when an employee asks you a direct question, you cannot say that you should not be telling him/her this but…..The best thing to dois to maintain your compassion while explicitly acknowledging the high level of uncertainty that currently exists.

Seek to inspire: Rise to the occasion of the moment. Affirm the capabilities of your team and encourage everyone to work together. Make it a point to express that you truly believe in each and every one of your team members and their capabilities. Admit that you are up against hard times and acknowledge that there will be hard times ahead, but also convey a sense of strength in terms of bearing what we’re going to have to bear. Express your hope that you will all get through this crisis. Be as enthusiastic as you can be, under the circumstances. Your tone should be not too positive and not too negative.

Offer support: Finally, it’s important to make a special effort to understand your team members’ individual worries and stresses. Because most employees are working remotely, you can’t rely on hallway conversations to take their emotional temperature. There aren’t enough Zoom or Team meetings in the world to make up for what’s lost when your team isn’t physically together. Check in with your team on a regular basis to get a handle on where people stand. Listen carefully to what people are asking and saying. Most people need to hear they’re going to be ok. Give every reassurance you can, based on the reality of the situation at hand.

Principles to Remember – What you should be doing:

(1) Understand the leadership challenge you face — you’re teaching people how to succeed in a crisis.
(2) Consider your employees’ perspective and think about what you would want to hear if you were in their shoes.
(3) Encourage your team through inspiring language. Your message is, “We can do this together.”

Principles to Remember – What you should NOT be doing:

(1) Trade in speculation. Be honest and truthful about the facts on the ground.
(2) Sugarcoat the situation. Otherwise, you’ll come across as a liar or someone who’s out of touch.
(3) Ignore the personal touch. Meet with your team members one-and-one and in small groups and offer support.

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Silvan Mifsud

Silvan holds a degree in Banking & Finance from the University of Malta and an MBA from the University of Reading, specialising in Corporate Finance and Business Leadership. Silvan has been involved in various sectors of the economy holding various managerial and directorship roles. Silvan is presently working as a Director for Advisory Services at EMCS, whereby he advises various businesses on their strategy, operations, corporate governance, financial performance analysis and sourcing their financing needs.