I've been lucky enough to see many executives handle crises first hand. Sometimes the crisis is a small deal or employee issue, and sometimes it's a large issue such as what we're going through with the coronavirus. While I've seen great leadership responses, I've also witnessed bad ones.
Everyone handles a crisis differently, I understand that. But, there are some ways great leaders communicate to their teams in crisis that really stand out from the rest.
Here are a few tips I've picked up while working directly with the CEOs, founders, and executives who did a great job of handling communication during a crisis.
When you're announcing bad news, do it all at once.
Nobody wants to get bad news on Monday morning, bad news Tuesday afternoon, and then even worse news on Friday evening. If you're going to announce bad news, do it quickly, and do it all at once. Get it over with.
You can't predict the future, but it's better to make decisions quickly and not have every day be a different story that you have to tell the team. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people tell me: "I wish she would just let me know if I'm being fired or not."
Withholding bad news or delaying decisions causes mass confusion and anxiety across your entire team. And when you need them to be as focused as ever, they're going to spend their time focusing on the unknowns.
If you're going to lay people off, just do it. Don't have a meeting to announce layoffs and not tell people who exactly who is going to get laid off or when you are going to announce layoffs. For the company's sake and for your employees' sake, tell them all the bad news upfront, and clearly communicate what happens next.
Human beings are resilient, in the sense that we can overcome any hardships and move on with our lives. So, don't piecemeal bad news. It's not good for anyone.
Establish you're open for any meetings with any staff at any time.
When people are uncertain of what's happening in their lives and careers, they get antsy and unpredictable. I have a client who did a great job of communicating bad news early and specified that he's open for a phone or video chat at any time. He even provided his cell phone number in the email so they can call without an appointment.
As expected, employees who were uncertain about things, called him directly and the leader was able to calm them down and reset expectations. Yes, this takes up a lot of time, but in the end, this is well worth it for him, his company and his team.
On the other hand, I've seen executives give bad news on Monday morning but not specify what exactly is going to happen to employees during the call. They're all wondering if they lost their jobs, or maybe their pay is being reduced, and the executive team never addressed it directly. And I get it, sometimes miscommunication happens.
But, the biggest mistake they made was not making themselves available to talk it over with every individual who wanted to have a chat. The leadership team just announced the bad news, gave zero direction on what's going to happen next, and went on with their day while pretending nothing even happened. That week was one of the most unproductive, anxiety-ridden weeks the company has ever seen.
So, if you're going to communicate bad news, make yourself available for any conversation.
Business is business, but people always come first.
I was hoping I wouldn't have to state this so clearly, but apparently this needs to be said again. How you treat your employees during a time of crisis will determine how loyal they are to you, how hard they work for you, and ultimately how successful your company will be.
For some companies, executives have taken pay cuts to reduce layoffs, and that will always be appreciated. Now is the time to think of your people when you communicate clearly. You most likely were in their position in a previous lifetime, and now is not the time to forget about that.