Guidance For Leaders: 5 Tips for Communicating in a Time of Crisis

Dear friends and colleagues,

As someone who was in the workforce during 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, I have witnessed many examples of poor leadership, and some outstanding examples of good. Over the last two weeks, I gathered these tips to share. They are written from my own experience and from listening to fellow leaders, and most recently, from having great discussions with my incomparable professors at Harvard’s Extension School in the Industrial-Organizational Psychology graduate program. I sincerely hope you find them helpful, and I wish you all much success as you serve as role models and agents of calm compassion in a world of unknowns.

  1. Give crystal clear guidance, even in the face of changing conditions. Good leaders navigate ambiguity so that those they are leading don’t have to. Lower the cognitive load for your people. This is especially important in the world of virtual work, because people no longer have each other readily accessible to “figure it out” together. The self-organization process is much more difficult when people are working individually from their homes, so leaders are advised to not depend upon it happening the way it did when teams were collocated.
  2. Be clear about what specifically may change. Even if you think everything may change, state that clearly. Limit surprise for your people.
  3. Be honest about what you do not know, and share what you are doing to gain needed clarity. Build confidence in your leadership.
  4. Listen to others without reaction. Anyone can react to a crisis. Leaders proact. It is important to still be compassionate, but know the difference between being compassionate and coming across as though you are unstable or do not have any answers.
  5. Tell people when they can expect an update from you, and follow through. Even if you have nothing new to share, stick to a frequent communication plan – depending on the crisis, this may be hourly, twice a day (morning and night), or daily. Updates should never be less frequent than daily during a crisis; it allows too much time in between updates for speculation, rising panic, and rumors to spread. It is much easier to keep repeating yourself rather than have to dispel rumors!

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