The vital importance of effective and empathetic communication as part of the leadership armoury in times of change and crisis cannot be underestimated. The way we communicate and collaborate over the next weeks and months will help us both navigate the volatile and unsettling times and prepare solid and stable platforms for growth on the other side of COVID-19. Based on my own experiences, I’ve outlined below a few important pointers for communicating through the strangest of times.
Blaise Hammond. Director, Communications and Engagement
In weird and worrying times like these, I often think back to my parents and the mix of characteristics that I might have been lucky enough to inherit. My Father was a bomb disposal expert based in London in the late 60’s and early 70’s. He lived and operated through some pretty turbulent times. My mother was a singer, so you could say I am blessed (or afflicted) with both cold and hot blood; some calm and some creative.
I have lived a professional life through both the 2001 recession and 2008 crisis working as a partner and managing director of an award-winning PR practice. We are all now living through a strange and very different crisis (or set of crises if you include both the global pandemic and the resulting financial instability) and I am privileged to be part of an award-winning international digital transformation consultancy during this challenging time.
Although the crises have been strikingly different, the lessons learned from senior management I have worked with (and am working with) have mainly related to the ability of leaders to ‘slow down time’ amid the chaos, and to communicate clearly and effectively through very tough times.
Being a huge sports fan, I am a firm believer that business can learn from sport and vice versa. For example, under times of extreme duress the lessons learned from the England rugby world cup win in 2003 come into sharp focus today. Sir Clive Woodward designed both critical thinking and communication behaviour into his team’s DNA in the run up to World Cup glory. He called it T-CUP: Thinking correctly under pressure and subsequently communicating clearly under pressure.
Taking that clear and calm approach to communication in a COVID-19 world is helping to project calm to potentially unsettled groups of employees. Regardless of the fact that Informed has designed itself into a position where all teams can function fully in remote settings, the isolation we are currently faced with brings new challenges for all of us. Week two and the novelty of remote working can become tired or old if energy and positivity is missing from dialogue.
Communication should be extra clear, positive and affirmative – encouraging teams, but not over-protecting – None of us has ever experienced a set of crises like this. The younger workers who have not experienced a crisis will learn from it, just as the older heads learned from past experience and are learning new things this time round – mostly related to communicating in remote settings for extended periods of time.
Team communication has to reinforce the message that we’re all in this together. There will be opportunities for wins (both small and big) from a business perspective as well as stories of individual endeavour. Taking time to celebrate the wins is always important, but in the midst of chaos, slow the time down and reflect, celebrate and reward. Communications focused on optimism, building team spirit, collaboration and cohesion will go a long way to protecting and strengthening the corporate culture and values that will be tested the longer this crisis lasts.
Take care over the style and tone of communication and the channels used – comments and phrases can be ‘lost in translation’ in tough times, whilst misunderstandings can be exaggerated in pressured situations. Much higher levels of active listening are required (Listen. Don’t just wait for the next opportunity to speak). This can be tiring - where we can normally rely on several senses during physical face-to-face communication, we now have to rely on one or two senses over the phone or via video calls.
Focus on clarity of message and motivation: Think carefully about the channel of communication, not just the communication itself. Where should the face-to-face or phone call replace the written word, where the short call from the CEO makes a huge difference to an individual under stress, or the written message or all team video call where recognition and reward for excellence, integrity or innovation can be shared and celebrated.
Ultimately, effective and empathetic communication will enable us to share what we have, deliver messages about what we expect from others, and learn what others need from us. Calm and specific communication under pressure helps develop better understanding and belief among people and inspires them to follow jointly understood and well-articulated principles and values that act as guiding lights in the darkest of times.