The impact of this pandemic is painful. Anxiety over the unknown is pervasive and overwhelming. Not only for us as individuals and families, but also for businesses, non-profits, schools, and faith-based organizations. There are more obstacles ahead, leading to difficult decisions. Some may come through this more durable than before, but some will not survive. Others will be permanently changed. Our outcomes are uncertain. One thing is sure: Our best opportunity to realize a positive result will depend on the actions we take now. As a leader, we influence the effort of everyone in our organization, and their actions will have an enormous impact on the outcome.
Most of us are now working remotely. Some have been working remotely for years, so little transition is necessary. For others, it requires some adjustment: Learning new skills, technology (e.g., Zoom, Slack), and communication practices. Priorities are changing in some organizations, so work content is evolving. On top of all this, there’s concern about the future: job, income, health, homeschooling the kids, and more. The “noise” is deafening and distracting. Communication is a crucial leadership tool for aligning the team around the task at hand.
As a leader, you are made especially for times like this. Your team looks to you for direction, strength, and confidence. Since circumstances continue to evolve, frequent changes will increase the sense of chaos. Silence creates a vacuum for fear and anxiety. Don’t go radio silent. Regardless of the type of your organization, your team needs to hear from you regularly, with these key messages, using these tactics:
1. Appreciation & Value: People who are valued are more invested, more committed. “You are the best part of us. Our customers depend on you every day. You create their loyalty, and we appreciate what you do, especially in these times.”
2. Operational Plan (Our Survival Plan): “Yes, things are bad, and here’s what we are doing about it.” You are not looking to exaggerate the difficulties, but don’t want to sugarcoat them either. Focus on facts and actions. They may not like what they hear, but your team can deal with the truth far better than silence, hinting, hype, deception, or hollow rhetoric.
- How we will operate the business (for at least as far out we can see)
- Financial plan (You may not be able to explain every aspect, but provide an honest view with as much clarity as possible)
- Actions we are taking
- Hard decisions we have made or expect to make
- Where we see risk
- Milestones we anticipate
- Goals we must achieve for this plan to succeed
- How we will make decisions
3. Priorities & Focus: Creating a focus on the most impactful actions generates momentum. Where should your team focus their attention? What can be de-prioritized? You might suspend some functions and escalate others. For some, you might put future product development on hold to focus on existing products that can increase the chance of survival. You might accelerate the development of other products that could meet a new emerging need and create the cash flow you need to survive. One of the highest priorities is to increase meaningful communication.
4. Remote Working Plan: Explain how we will coordinate, communicate, interact, and collaborate. Make sure the team knows how to get in touch with each other. Are there specific triggers for communication?
5. Daily Huddle: Provide a forum for regular dialogue by instituting a daily huddle. Use this time to make decisions, set expectations, answer questions, coordinate team activities, align around the play-of-the-day, and report progress. If you listen carefully, you can recognize issues early. To foster collaboration, make clear where team members are dependent on each other (Susie can’t do her job until Sam finishes his). Make these as crisp as possible, but know the first ones will be messy and protracted. It will take several sessions for everyone to get used to this format.
6. Town Hall: While the daily huddle is focused on the day-to-day activities of running the organization, establish a weekly town hall to look at the bigger picture, discuss people impacts, perhaps provide tips for remote work or new tools, and provide a forum for Q&A. Be prepared to allow time for people to get frustrations off their chest. Encourage the team to express themselves. You don’t want a gripe fest, but unspoken and unaddressed conflict will grow and spread unrest. You never know when those frustrations might reveal a hidden, golden nugget. How you react will go a long way toward building or undermining trust. You might consider using this town hall format for subsets of the employee body, especially if there are topics with limited interest to the whole team.
7. Trust & Confidence: Too often, the natural reaction to remote work is to become a micro-manager and demand mountains of bureaucratic administrivia. Those are big mistakes. Yes, some employees might take advantage, but most employees are trustworthy and will appreciate having a job. Micromanaging rarely improves the performance of untrustworthy employees, reduces the productivity of reliable employees, and distracts the manager from more impactful work. Micromanaging the masses because of a handful will backfire. Instead, communicate, “I have confidence in you.” Where you see performance lag, address it individually. It helps to have clear expectations and measurable tasks. Use the daily huddle to see who is making the progress they need.
8. Truth: Whether you are speaking to a group or individuals, how you communicate will have a significant impact on their attitude, outlook, commitment, and productivity.
- Early & Often: In the absence of information from you, fears and rumors will fill the void. It will be uncomfortable, but you will need to communicate before you have all the answers, and far more frequently than you think is necessary. Over-communicate even though you will often be saying what you’ve already said.
- Honesty: Not brutal, harsh, or malicious, but raw. “Here’s what I know … here’s what I don’t know.” “I know the answer to that but cannot announce it today.” No spin. No innuendo. No gobbledygook.
- Clarity: Remote communication is challenging since non-verbals are hindered in both directions, so words and tone take on much more weight. Say what you mean. Mean what you say.
- Truth with Care: Truth is powerful when delivered in the context of trust and relationship. When you genuinely care, employees feel it, and it changes how they receive communication. Now would be an excellent opportunity to improve this by reading Radical Candor by Kim Scott. Follow this link to watch her keynote introducing the concepts.
- Truth with Optimism & Hope: Optimism is not about promising something you cannot deliver or putting lipstick on a pig. Your goal is to remind your team we are all stronger than we think and, while we don’t know what additional obstacles we face, we will overcome.
9. I Want to Hear from You: Your team knows and sees things you don’t. They can be an early warning system for you, but only if communication lines are open. Talk to them more one-on-one. Be deliberate. Ask them to avoid hinting or sugarcoating. It does you no good for them to tell them what they think you want to hear. Ask them to share what you need to hear. Don’t argue or debate what you hear. Listen. Really listen. Become easy to talk to, and you will learn more than you can imagine.
10. Patience: None of us have been through anything like this before. We are learning and adapting to a new reality. Uncertainty can be overwhelming. We will make sometimes daily adjustments in our actions. We will make judgement calls with less than perfect information, and mistakes will be made. Frustrations will sometimes boil over in our attitude and conversation. All of us need to exercise patience in all directions.
11. People Priority: Spouses and kids are at home, adding new demands, distractions, and worries on everyone. Your team will not be at their best if their family isn’t. It is in your best interest to encourage them to make their family the priority.
12. All Levels: Encourage the other leaders on your team to cascade these messages and tactics throughout the organization. Every employee needs to hear this, all the way to the frontline. Much like that old game of “Grapevine,” messages often get garbled as they are passed through management layers. Unfortunately, “middle” management can often thwart your best efforts if they are not on-board. Given attention to this group. Also, make sure you are directly talking to and hearing from the frontline.
13. I Am Human, Too:
- Authenticity: “I am going through this, too.” Not to make it about you, but let them see you are human. This is a balancing act. On one hand, don’t hide you are struggling through this. Let them see feel emotions. On the other hand, don’t make your struggles the center story. Remember, as a leader, this is never about you, and always about your team and customers. Show strength and resolve in your humanity.
- Humor: Don’t lose your smile. Laughter is healing. You want to reduce tension and relax folks so they can focus on what is essential. You take the situation and your actions seriously, but you don’t take yourself too seriously. Self-deprecating humor is best. Share your humorous struggles as you adjust to new ways (like conducting a Zoom meeting without realizing a basket of dirty laundry was in the background; or, trying to explain fractions to your child). Avoid being insensitive. Don’t make jokes at the team’s expense. Don’t make virus jokes.
14. I’m Here for You: Be available. Like it or not, personal life will get in the way of work. Be a resource. Be a friend. Show you care. “If you are overwhelmed, struggling, need help, someone to listen to you, help you brainstorm, call me. It’s just between us. I may not be able to meet every need, but I will help as best I can.”
Bonus Technology Tips: Many companies already have technology deployed to help with the challenges of the day. If not, here are some tips:
- Chat: Many companies already use software like Slack for teams to communicate. There is a free version. For smaller groups, a group text or Facebook Messenger group might work.
- Video: Zoom, GoToMeeting, Uber Conference, and other teleconference tools are excellent for interactive video meetings. They can be recorded for those unable to attend live. There is a cost, although they might have limited-time offers with a complimentary period.
- Audio: FreeConferenceCall.com is, well, free. My favorite 4-letter “F” word is free, and this is one of the easiest ways to get a group together for discussion. It’s always better to have video, but if your team might struggle with everyone using the technology, an audio conference can be much easier to get started.
- Town Halls: Some are creating private Facebook groups for regular communication, including the ability to do “town hall” type live streams using Facebook Live. All team members can interact for Q&A, but keep in mind the interaction is via comment/chat, not audio/video.
- Learning Curve: All this technology might require some getting used to for you and participants. You should try it first with a small group before getting everyone using it. Consider hosting a training session.
Author: Kevin D. Phillips is a consultant, executive coach, and leadership developer helping clients increase profitability, improve customer loyalty, and navigate challenges of rapid growth. As Build Them Up® founder, he is on a mission to help leaders improve organizational results by investing in the people who create them. Connect at www.KevinPhillips.com or on social media at www.HowdyKevin.com.