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Six Tips for Effective Communication Amid Coronavirus Uncertainty

We are living through a case study of crisis management for leaders. The coronavirus may have limited or may have significant impact on your business, but in either case, it’s taking major mindshare for employees and creating anxiety in organizations around the globe.

Insight Experience teaches leaders how to communicate effectively. Normally we’re focused on accelerating business results or aligning complicated organizations or helping engage employees to deliver on a vision. We see and learn from the leaders we work with all year long about how challenging effective communication is even in the simplest of settings. An unprecedented, unknown concern like coronavirus makes communication that is heard and helpful even more difficult to achieve.

We are watching leaders struggle to set the right tone and to calm their own fears. We’re seeing leaders who are paralyzed in the face of the uncertainty and constant evolution of the facts and events. We’re seeing leaders who are saying nothing, which as we all know, is actually saying a lot (in the worst way) to their teams.

So what makes a good message in this environment? Every business is different, every team is different but these lessons might help. Think about your next email or the next time an employee asks a question and see if your response follows these guidelines based on our experience in calmer times.

What can leaders do?

  1. Focus on your values. Your highest priority is probably safety of employees, customers and community. Make sure to say that out loud and don’t assume that your team knows that is guiding your thinking.
  2. Reinforce facts. Be careful of amplifying the wide range of predictions; fake news; and unscientific perspectives available to all of us over the internet.  Repetition is the way that bad information gains credibility. Check your sources.
  3. Be prepared to shift course. Don’t lock in. Don’t overpromise. Coronavirus is a VUCA event, and in the face of ambiguity, your greatest asset is your ability to be agile and shift direction. We don’t know how this will play out, so don’t pretend you do. In particular, avoid setting expectations of when “things will get back to normal.” We just don’t know.
  4. Remind people about what they CAN do. For most of us, incessant hand-washing and general germ precautions are our best offense.
  5. Be open, interested and willing to listen. Some of what teams and employees need from a leader is an ear. As leaders we make assumptions about what people are thinking…and not always correctly. Listen for the questions and concerns behind the comments.
  6. Help employees look beyond today. The anxiety about coronavirus is immediate but this crisis will resolve over time. Help everyone keep the current situation in perspective. Optimism has a place even in a crisis.

Most importantly, communicate clearly, simply and often. Acknowledging your own uncertainty and concern can help others weather this storm.