In times of crisis, effective communication becomes more important than ever. As a leader, your words and actions can either lift or lower morale. Are you equipped with the necessary emotional intelligence to inspire hope and commitment through difficult times?
In this article, you'll learn 7 best practices for communicating with empathy, honesty, and clarity, and find out how you can be a compassionate leader who amplifies positive emotions in your team, even in the worst of times:
Importance of communication during times of crisis
Great leaders understand that managing people goes beyond just managing tasks - it's about managing emotions. They constantly monitor the emotional climate of their teams and have the emotional intelligence required to inspire hope and commitment, even during tough times.
When anxiety levels rise, you have a chance to showcase compassionate leadership. In fact, difficult times call for increased empathy and positive emotional intelligence. As a leader, it is important to influence your team positively and uplift their spirits.
According to Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an organizational psychologist:
As a leader, you are an amplifier of people’s emotions. If you do things right, you can bring out the best in people even in the worst of times. If you do things wrong, you will lower morale and performance even when things are fine.
Whether you're leading a crisis management town hall or conducting a virtual meeting with your team, it's essential to communicate effectively, especially during times of heightened anxiety. Even if you're feeling anxious yourself, these best practices will help you improve your communication skills.
1. Be honest
When it comes to communicating during a crisis, effective leaders understand the importance of honesty. Keeping people in the dark can lead to misinformation and unfounded assumptions, which only increase anxiety levels.
According to author Nancy Koehn, being honest and transparent can reduce fear and increase trust among employees. Instead of ignoring or eliminating anxiety, leaders should encourage employees to recognize their role in finding solutions and taking action to prevent them from feeling helpless and disconnected.
But she also advocates being thoughtful about this point. It's important to be considerate of the information you communicate and how you deliver it, depending on your audience. The details you share during a company-wide town hall should differ from what you share with your board members or close advisors.
Also, remember that simply being honest may not be sufficient in times of crisis. To build trust and maintain employee loyalty during difficult times, effective communication, shared sacrifice, and transparency are critical.
2. Stay optimistic
During a crisis, people often worry about who is leading and how they are responding to the situation. As a leader, it's crucial to instill confidence in your team by demonstrating that you have a plan, know what needs to be done, and are positive about the outcome. A significant source of anxiety for many individuals is uncertainty, so your calm and clear direction can help reduce some of these concerns.
Dr. Mark Mitchnick, a physician and life sciences executive, suggests that projecting confidence is essential, but he warns against being unrealistically optimistic and over-promising results. Instead, he recommends under-promising and over-delivering to build trust with your team during difficult times.
Staying optimistic can be hard when you’re feeling anxious yourself, but no matter how scared or worried you are, never allow yourself to have a public breakdown. Your team needs to stay calm, steady, and hopeful—and they’re looking to you to lead by example.
That doesn’t mean completely shutting off your feelings, however. Showing humanity is crucial in times of crisis, but it's essential to avoid showing panic. Thoughtfully demonstrating vulnerability can help build trust and make you relatable to your team while still maintaining your strength as a leader.
3. Provide next steps
Emergency room doctors and nurses handle crises by getting people to keep moving. They give clear instructions on what to do next so their team can stay focused, productive, and anchored. This helps their team overcome the paralysis that often comes with fear and anxiety.
Similarly, when communicating with employees in difficult times, focus on your mission and strategy moving forward. These do not even have to be long-term plans, just immediate next steps—even if you don’t have all the answers right now, people want to know that you’re doing everything you can, whether that’s seeking external expert advice or finding a way to pivot the business.
Try focusing on what you expect to happen in the next couple of weeks, sharing openly about what’s in the process right now, and letting your team know how they can help speed things along. Giving your employees clear and actionable next steps makes them feel involved in any company changes and provides a distraction from excessive worrying.
4. Listen attentively
As a leader, it is essential to recognize how your employees are impacted by challenging situations. Gaining insight into their emotions, concerns, and needs can help you determine the best approach to support and guide them through difficult times. By demonstrating empathy and taking proactive measures, you can build trust and foster a positive work environment where everyone feels heard and valued.
One way to measure and monitor stress levels across your organization is through stress surveys. With these, you gain insights into specific groups or demographics of employees that are most affected. Plus, tracking changes in stress levels can help you adapt mental health programs or provide more resources to support your employees.
Encourage your employees to voice their concerns and needs by conducting a private Q&A session. This allows for anonymous feedback and creates a safe space for sensitive questions. Having an open channel of communication with leadership can increase employees’ trust and help you address their concerns.
5. Communicate consistently
Consistent communication is key to keeping your employees engaged and informed during times of change. It is important to ensure that everyone is on the same page and understands the direction the company is headed. Regular updates and opportunities for feedback can help to build trust and keep morale high. It also provides a platform for employees to ask questions, clarify any doubts and feel like they are part of the process.
Check in regularly to keep people abreast of changes as they happen, especially in a volatile or dynamic situation where circumstances can change from day to day. Keep your employees in the loop about new developments, respond quickly to questions and concerns, and be exceptionally clear about the company’s mission during this difficult time (Koehn shares that a clear mission is what gives people faith in leaders even in the face of uncertain futures).
And make sure you use face-to-face communications rather than emails or phone calls. Professor Sir Cary Cooper, recognized as a world-leading expert on well-being, argues that leaders need to maintain a strong human connection with their teams in trying times. “Keeping face-to-face contact ensures morale is still high and stresses to your employees how much you value them.”
6. Celebrate the wins
Koehn advises that great leaders always find victories to celebrate, even in trying times, to inspire their teams to do the same. Celebrating wins not only provides temporary relief from anxieties and fears, but also shifts the focus onto the progress made rather than what has been lost.
Showing gratitude to your employees can boost morale, even in difficult times. It reaffirms their significance in the company and encourages a sense of shared responsibility. Even if there is no good news, thanking them for their hard work and expressing a positive outlook for the future can motivate them to contribute towards resolving the crisis.
7. Take care of yourself
In any situation, it's crucial to prioritize taking care of yourself before helping others, just like the emergency procedures on airplanes instruct passengers to secure their own masks before assisting others.
To be an effective leader, you need to take care of your emotional, mental, and physical health. This means acknowledging and addressing your anxieties, uncertainties, or feelings of unease. Dr. Mitchnick offers a straightforward mindfulness system that outlines the following steps:
- Recognise what you are feeling
- Accept those feelings without judgment
- Embrace and investigate with curiosity whatever that feeling is
- Take deep breaths to reboot
Choose a method of self-care that works best for you, whether it's meditation, exercise, sleep, or speaking to a therapist. Show up for yourself first so that you can show up for others with empathy, humanity, and compassion.
Communicate with empathy and compassion
It can be challenging to communicate during times of anxiety, but it's often the most critical conversations that have the greatest impact. Mishandling crisis management can have lasting ramifications, so it's essential to lead with empathy, humanity, and compassion. Remember that tough conversations matter and show your team that you're there for them.