Key principles for leaders communicating in times of uncertainty

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has caused more uncertainty than just about any event in our lifetimes, creating stress not only for families but also organizations and those who lead them. People avoid uncertainty, and when it is thrust upon us, we will try to reduce the ambiguity, in part by paying attention to the signals we receive from our leaders.

Cliff Scott, UNC Charlotte professor of Communication Studies and Organizational Science, shares some key principles leaders should keep in mind as they communicate with their employees during these unprecedented times.

There is danger in crisis but also key opportunities for strategic influence. Employees pay more attention to the messages they receive from supervisors and leaders in times of crisis. They’re also more likely to remember them. In this moment of crisis, there is an opportunity to remind them of core organizational values and communicate supportiveness as we all work through the current situation. As a leader, you’ve made claims over the years about what the organization values. Here is a key opportunity to back up your statement of values with the actions you take.

Leaders can influence how people interpret situations, intentionally and unintentionally. Leaders need to recognize that followers not only sometimes misinterpret messages in times of crisis but also might receive messages you never intended to begin with. One supervisor I heard about insisted that employees continue to work face-to-face while others had been told to work and conduct meetings remotely. Imagine the unintended message many concerned employees received about whether the supervisor and the organization cared about the health and safety of employees and their families. Similarly, many employees have received messages in recent weeks that classify them as “non-essential.”

When leaders don’t address uncertainty, employees may use rumor and speculation to fill in the blanks. Too often, leaders assume they should withhold information about what’s happening next in a crisis situation until they’re certain about its accuracy and all the details and contingencies are relatively clear. It is better to provide some information to employees, even if you’re not entirely sure about its long-term accuracy, than not to provide any information at all. You also need to provide ongoing updates periodically to note when things do change and when they don’t. Similarly, don’t forget to make sure your most-valued, high-performing employees know you appreciate them and don’t intend to lose them to mitigate fears they might have of possible downsizing.

Don’t assume you know everything you need to make decisions. Oftentimes, leaders forget there is a lot to be gained from the perspectives of employees. Research shows that the most reliable, responsive organizations are those who allow decisions to be influenced by the experts, regardless of rank. And when employees have opportunities to influence the decisions of their leaders—decisions that will ultimately shape how they do their jobs—they experience a greater sense of control, reduced stress and improved job performance.

Acknowledge how complicated the situation is for your people and their families. When so many of us find ourselves working from home while also taking care of children and/or elderly parents, there probably isn’t such a thing as “work/life balance.” Acknowledge the context in which people are working. People appreciate even the most basic acknowledgement of this tension. Encourage supervisors to be flexible with their demands and check in with individual employees regularly just to see how they and their families are doing. Human connections matter, particularly when we are working at a distance from each other.

Cliff Scott is a professor of communication and organizational science in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at UNC Charlotte. His research interests include how people use communication to deal with ambiguous and uncertain situations.