Clarity Over Comfort

Communication During Crisis

Lead­ers across the world are now walk­ing through an event that requires a new type of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Many indus­tries have been hit hard seem­ing­ly overnight. Oth­ers will have more of a lag to them as the eco­nom­ic effects cas­cade. While oth­ers, grate­ful­ly, aren’t impact­ed as pro­found­ly, or per­haps are even in a posi­tion to thrive.

Today I want to speak to the group in the mid­dle: the busi­ness­es that haven’t already shut down oper­a­tions or dras­ti­cal­ly cut team size, but who under­stand the real pos­si­bil­i­ty of that happening.

In his book Good to Great, author Jim Collins pro­files an Admi­ral from Viet­nam named Jim Stock­dale. Stock­dale was shot down, and he became a pris­on­er of war. He was in a POW camp for eight years, tor­tured more than twen­ty times, and nev­er knew if or when he’d be released. Eight years is a long time for some­thing like that. Stock­dale saw oth­er POW pris­on­ers come and go dur­ing that time. But after those eight long years, he made it back home to his fam­i­ly and country.

Nat­u­ral­ly, he has been inter­viewed a good bit about his expe­ri­ence. He and his wife also wrote a book about it through the lens of their rela­tion­ship. So as Jim Collins is learn­ing about Stockdale’s time, he was curi­ous to learn how exact­ly he man­aged to sur­vive. It was clear that Stock­dale nev­er doubt­ed that he would make it. That was key. But there was more. One of the ques­tions Collin’s asked is, Who didn’t make it out?”

Stock­dale quick­ly answered, Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.”

What he noticed was that the pris­on­ers who opti­misti­cal­ly expect­ed to be free by Christ­mas were let down. Then they’d expect to be free by East­er. Let down again. Then they’d wait for Thanks­giv­ing — only to be let down again. And so on. That led Stock­dale to note this lesson:

You must nev­er con­fuse faith that you will pre­vail in the end — which you can nev­er afford to lose — with the dis­ci­pline to con­front the most bru­tal facts of your cur­rent real­i­ty, what­ev­er they might be.

That is where many busi­ness lead­ers find them­selves amidst COVID-19 right now. They have faith in the end of their sto­ry as a team. It’s strong. It’s res­olute. But at the same time, they also rec­og­nize the bru­tal facts and must plan for and around them.

That is why lead­ers need to lean into dis­com­fort right now.

In Prac­tice

What does Clar­i­ty Over Com­fort” look like in prac­tice? That will depend, in large part, on what your team looks like. I think there are a few con­stants, though, that we can con­sid­er for most of us.

Be Real

The first is that we can’t shy away from bad news or bad pro­jec­tions. If you antic­i­pate your rev­enue drop­ping to a point where you may need to make changes to your team (com­pen­sa­tion reduc­tions, fur­loughs, lay­offs, etc.), you may ini­tial­ly want to hold onto that infor­ma­tion. After all, why spread fear through your team, right? 

Well, in these cir­cum­stances, it’s a guar­an­tee that your team is won­der­ing if their job is at risk. So if it is, tell them. If it’s not, tell them.

No news or com­mu­ni­ca­tion is worse than bad news. The absence of updates leaves a gap in one’s aware­ness that gets filled in with sto­ries and assump­tions. Our nature as humans is to fill in the gaps with sto­ries. Your team, and you, for that mat­ter, are much bet­ter off with accu­rate bad news.

Con­ver­sa­tions about poten­tial cut­backs are not fun; in fact, they’re often avoid­ed. But if there’s ever a time to throw com­fort out the win­dow, it’s now. Your team deserves as much clar­i­ty as you can pro­vide. As one of our team mem­bers remarked, Clar­i­ty has iron­i­cal­ly result­ed in increased com­fort. Being on the oth­er side of this mes­sag­ing, clar­i­ty and trans­paren­cy went from being uncom­fort­able to empow­er­ing — I feel bet­ter know­ing what could be ahead.”

Com­mu­ni­cate Frequently

The nature of COVID-19 is that there is new infor­ma­tion dai­ly, if not hourly. If you cur­rent­ly com­mu­ni­cate with your team in a month­ly or week­ly fash­ion, you’ll need to get out of your com­fort zone and increase that frequency.

Right now, it seems like mul­ti­ple updates a week are nec­es­sary for cer­tain parts of the world. In the U.S., for exam­ple, we’re in the mid­dle of numer­ous bills being nego­ti­at­ed and passed, which has the poten­tial to change both the busi­ness and per­son­al plans and expec­ta­tions. Because of these fre­quent changes and updates, we need to have reg­u­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tion with our teams.

Flu­id vs. Definitive

When shar­ing updates with your team, it’s impor­tant to be con­fi­dent and com­posed, but not defin­i­tive. One thing we all have in com­mon right now is that we can’t con­fi­dent­ly pre­dict how things will shake out. We need to approach our plans and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with a flu­id mind­set, under­stand­ing we’ll get cer­tain things wrong or we’ll need to piv­ot mul­ti­ple times along the way.

Every­one has an impor­tant part to play in this fight. Lead­ers shouldn’t be putting on fake smiles and pre­tend­ing this isn’t hard and tax­ing. We should be steady, poised, and solutions-focused.

Take time to appre­ci­ate the pos­i­tives, but don’t bury your head in the sand. As Admi­ral Stock­dale said:

You must nev­er con­fuse faith that you will pre­vail in the end — which you can nev­er afford to lose — with the dis­ci­pline to con­front the most bru­tal facts of your cur­rent real­i­ty, what­ev­er they might be.”

I invite you to com­mit to Clar­i­ty Over Com­fort with your team. Lean in, trust the team, band togeth­er, and fight the fight together.

And nev­er lose the faith that you will pre­vail in the end.

Published on March 26, 2020

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