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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
© 2021 Erik Reagan unless otherwise noted
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