Are you sending your team the wrong message?
When an organisation faces turmoil, employees aren’t just subjected to stress. They also often end up reeling from the trauma of events, searching for guidance from those at the top. As such, corporate leaders play a vital role in building a resilient workforce. They can do this by staying connected with their teams and ensuring all members are informed about key decisions, workplace experts recommend.
“When communication falters after a traumatic event, it stokes confusion and distrust in employees,” said Dr. Diana Hendel, co-author of the book Trauma to Triumph, which offers leaders a “roadmap” for working through a tumultuous phase. Failure to communicate well “creates a void [employees] tend to fill with their own fear-driven narratives.” How then can leaders succeed at crisis communication? Dr. Hendel and co-author Dr. Mark Goulston suggest the V.I.T.A.L. method:
V is for ‘visible’
“Don’t hide behind a spokesperson. It’s OK to delegate the communication function, but make sure messages come from you as the leader or incident commander. Communicate as quickly as possible, even if you don’t yet have all the information,” they said.
“Communicate what is known but also clarify what isn’t yet known. ‘Here’s what we don’t know yet. We will share it with the organisation as soon as we do know.’ Don’t overwhelm people with everything there is to say.
“Be consistent. Establish regular frequency for updates and communicate the schedule so people know when to ‘tune in,’” they said.
I is for ‘In it Together’
“Always link communication back to your mission, vision and values. As you set goals and share updates and wins, do it within the framework of where you’re going as an organisation. This provides a sense of stability as well as meaning and purpose,” the authors said.
“Empathy is critical. Encouragement and positivity matter, but resist telling people to get over it or ‘buck up.’ Seek to understand how people are feeling without judgment. Centre messaging on the theme that we’re all ‘in it together.’ This allows for acknowledgement of people’s fears, worries, and anxieties as expected and normal.
“It’s fine for leaders to express their own fears. This conveys a sense of authenticity and humility. Resist all temptation to blame or finger-point, to create an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. If you see this happening, firmly denounce it.”
Read more: Seven habits of leaders in crisis
T is for ‘transparent’
“Help all employees understand the external environment. People may not always know what’s going on. Don’t assume that they do. Tackle rumours head on. Seek out ‘elephants in the room’ and address them,” Dr. Hendel and Dr. Goulston said.
“Share bad news the minute you have it. Knowing what’s happening is always better than not knowing. This kind of news (losses, layoffs) must come from the CEO. You cannot delegate it.”
A is for ‘accessible’
Going for a video message? Email? Or virtual town hall? All of these provide a great opportunity for the leader to “convey confidence and provide information, but also show humility, impart gratitude, and convey openness,” they said. “Let people know where they can go to get individualised help. Do everything you can to reduce the stigma of seeking help when it is needed. Emphasise your open-door policy if you have one. Make sure people know you and other leaders are available for one-on-one conversations if an employee has a concern.”
L is for ‘listening’
“Ask questions and leave room for inquiry. Resist the temptation to just listen for what you want to hear. It’s easy to echo all good news and avoid bad news, but your job is to hear and deal with the hard stuff too. If you hear a criticism (overt or implied) or tough feedback, don’t jump to defend yourself. It’s hard to keep listening, but this is where it really counts,” Dr. Hendel and Dr. Goulston said.
“Acknowledge what you hear – pain, fear, anger, anxiety – without diminishing or dismissing it. There is often wisdom in the resistance, a reason behind even the most hostile question. Try to understand where people are coming from. What can you learn from this pushback? Could you be wrong? Are you missing something? Is there a better way?”