How to talk to your team when the future is uncertain

By Rebecca Knight

Monday April 27, 2020


As the coronavirus pandemic escalates and disruptions to businesses continue, leaders are grappling with the unknown. Via the Harvard Business Review, Rebecca Knight provides recommendations for communicating with your staff during this uncertain time.

As the coronavirus pandemic escalates and disruptions to businesses continue, managers are grappling with the unknown. You don’t know when your staff will be able to return to the office or how different things will be when they do. Regardless, you need to be in constant communication with your team. But what information — and how much of it — should you share with your reports about the health of your organisation? How can you be candid about the possibility of pay cuts and layoffs without demoralising your team? And how can you offer assurance without giving people false hope?

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event in modern history. And yet, according to Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communications, the experience of managing through it is not necessarily unique. As was the case in previous crises, from 9/11 to the global financial downturn of 2007-2008, workers feel scared and worried. “Uncertainty triggers fear,” Argenti says. “People are freaking out and wondering, ‘What does this mean for my company, my job and my future?’” Your role as a manager is to project confidence and strength.

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Even though the situation is fast-moving and you don’t have perfect information, you need to be honest about what you know, says Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management. “Task one is transparency,” she says. Explain to your team what you know, what you don’t know and what you are going to do to close that gap. Your second task is to articulate a sense of possibility and hope.

Accomplishing both of these tasks is no easy feat. Below are recommendations for communicating with your employees during this uncertain time.

1. Steel yourself

Before you utter or write a word to your team, you need to understand the challenge that lies before you, Argenti explains. “You’re teaching people how to succeed in a crisis,” he says. Summon your courage. As a manager, your goal is to be the person workers turn to for guidance and direction. The right mindset is critical, says Edmonson. Channel your inner platoon leader, and prepare as you would for battle. Edmonson recommends sticking to your routines as much as you can. Eat well, exercise and try to get plenty of sleep. “Put on your own oxygen mask first,” she adds.

2. Make a plan

You will need a strategy for how and when you will communicate with your team about the situation as it evolves. When your organisation is in crisis, you need to share information early and often, Argenti says. Your team needs to know when and how frequently they’ll receive input from you as well as from your company’s leadership. He suggests holding periodic small meetings and one-on-ones to understand your team members’ most pressing issues.

3. Navigate your conversations with care

Make sure to consider your employees’ perspective. “Look at the situation from their shoes and think about what you yourself would want to hear,” says Argenti. You’d most likely want reassurance that eventually this is going to end. Allay your workers’ fears as much as you can.

”None of us has a great deal of clarity for what lies ahead,” says Edmonson. So, you need to admit what you don’t know. You may also be tempted to gloss over news that won’t be well-received. But that approach won’t do anyone any favours. “When you sugarcoat, you come across as a liar or someone who’s out of touch,” Edmonson explains. Besides, all the facts of the situation will become apparent over time, and softening hard truths can backfire. “When the truth comes out in dribs and drabs, it [doesn’t] build trust,” Edmonson adds.

If you haven’t gotten the green light to share information about layoffs or pay cuts, you may find yourself in a position where you cannot say anything. The best thing to do in those cases, says Edmonson, is to maintain your compassion while explicitly acknowledging the high level of uncertainty that currently exists. She recommends saying, “All of us wish we were not in this situation, but we are, and we must work together to do our best amid the uncertainty, challenge and chaos that this crisis has brought.”

Communicating openly with your team becomes more complex if your immediate boss is responding to the crisis in a way you disagree with. “Wrestling with that challenge is tricky,” says Argenti. He recommends that you try to make it sound like you accept your boss’s directive, but have a slightly different spin on it. Say, for instance, your boss lays out a remote work policy that requires all employees to be online from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. But you believe in giving employees more autonomy in how and when they work. You might spell out the policy and add that during this stressful time you trust your workers to use their best judgment. “Find a place where you can agree and respectfully disagree,” he says.

4. Seek to inspire

Rise to the occasion of the moment. Affirm the capabilities of your team and use rousing language to encourage everyone to work together, says Edmonson. She recommends saying something like, “I believe in each and every one of your capabilities — and I believe even more so in our joint capabilities. We can do this together.” Admit what you are up against and acknowledge that there will be hard times ahead. But also convey a sense of strength, Edmonson adds. Argenti recommends you express your hope that you will all get through this crisis and that you believe in the long-term future of your organisation. “Be as enthusiastic as you can be,” he says. Your tone should be neither too positive nor too negative.

5. Offer support

Finally, it’s important to make a special effort to understand your team members’ individual worries and stresses. “You can’t manage other people’s emotions; all you can do is minimise the fear they have,” says Argenti. Because most employees are working remotely, you can’t rely on hallway conversations to take their emotional temperature. Check in with your team on a regular basis to get a handle on where people stand. Listen carefully to what people are asking and saying. Most people need to hear they’re going to be OK, says Argenti. Give every reassurance you can.

(c) 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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