I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.
— Abraham Lincoln
Some leaders tend to minimize or sugarcoat the truth during a crisis because they don’t want their employees or customers to worry or too stressed out to function. During a crisis, it’s often necessary for your business to continue to operating, even if on a limited basis.
It is also possible, in fact, probable that you are operating with incomplete or conflicting information. “However, the worst thing you can do is deny, deceive, or deflect — this opens the door to rumors and distractions. Be honest and say something like, ‘this is what we know as of this moment, but the situation is fluid, and things may change. However, as soon as I know, you will know” (Parker, April 19, 2020). Similarly, as Rob Simmerman, division director of the power plant company, NAES Corporation, said, you can’t be paralyzed “. . . by the fear of giving the wrong answer. We had to get comfortable with ‘this is what we know today,’ recognizing that the answer may change tomorrow. It was a situation we were not used to.”
Accurate information is critical
Every leader in our study group knew the need for accurate information. They needed the information to make business-critical business decisions during this uncertain time. However, they also needed to communicate consistently with their employees and customers. Frankly, many were just plain frustrated by the challenge because they depended upon someone else, usually the government — local, state or federal. As DJ Stadtler, chief administrative officer of AMTRAK, told us, his biggest challenge and his biggest frustration was his “inability to offer consistent information because things were changing rapidly.” The leadership team held many town halls for employees, but it was still challenging because many people did not have computers. While they did provide a call-in number for these sessions, they also had supervisors call their people who did not attend the town halls.
Clear messaging during a crisis is a challenge. Collecting reliable, current information from sources you trust requires considerable effort. This is easier said than done because so much information is coming at you from various credible sources, but also from questionable ones such as some social media sites and news organizations. Bill Hawkey, head of the Pennington School, said it very clearly: “our biggest challenge was knowing how often the CDC guidelines would change and how they would change. However, it wasn’t a single crisis we were dealing with — it was also the presidential election, racism and COVID — and the differences of opinions across all three among our faculty and students.”
Similarly, school superintendent, Sean McNeil, said it very clearly:
Our biggest challenge was the constantly shifting guidance. Under normal circumstances, the State Department of Education provides us with guidance. However, during COVID, we were also taking direction from the state health department and the governor’s office. And, to make matters worse, the guidance was changing daily. It was especially frustrating because we were not experts in the field we were trying to manage. For example, we would issue strict, clear orders and directions one day, and then, a week later, things would change significantly.
The challenges continued after locating credible sources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). As Derek Beckman, general manager of a Courtyard by Marriott, told us, “I had to tailor the message to my audience (our staff), which involved first studying CDC documents and then boiling them down to the basics before it was distributed.”
“Information is the oil”
As Gene Klann, author of Crisis Leadership has pointed out, “information is the oil that greases an organization and keeps it running smoothly. This is especially true during a crisis.” While everyone agrees that face-to-face communication is best, it was often impossible during the pandemic. Organizations turned to virtual channels such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams with varying degrees of success.
Some organizations had people adept at planning and executing an effective virtual meeting, while others were frustrated by their lack of success in effectively communicating with their employees. For example, Mitch Rudin of Savills told us that his biggest frustration during the pandemic was their capability to communicate effectively with employees during this time. As he said, “we had mixed results with Zoom town halls. We discovered later that many people were just not listening during these events. As a result, I started traveling as soon as practical which motivated people to get together. In addition, we found that our newest employees were our best ambassadors for our culture because they all came to the office and were vocal in person and on social media about our company and the advantages of being together.”
Similarly, Jodie W. McLean of Edens said, “we had to recalibrate everything to ensure consistent messaging. As a result, we decided on a more centralized corporate decision-making process to ensure we were sending out a clear and consistent message.”
Leaders who are transparent garner a high degree of trust and loyalty from both employees and customers. Clear and honest communication are essential ingredients of a foundation of leadership transparency. When you are seen as authentic, people will follow you anywhere.
Glenn Parker is a team building, leadership, and organizational consultant. He is co-author of the highly regarded, Positive Influence: The Leader Who Helps People Become Their Best Self (HRD Press, 2020). This article is based on research conducted for a follow-on work, Positive Influence II: Leadership in a Time of Crisis (HRD Press, 2023). The research included interviews with a wide variety of senior leaders representing businesses and organizations most impacted by the COVID–19 crisis such as healthcare, hospitality, education, transportation, and nonprofits.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.