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How You Say It Matters: Communication in Crisis

With so much changing all around us — from school closings to shelter-in-place orders — it can be extremely challenging to stay levelheaded and focus on the critical tasks at hand.

At the same time, our employees depend on us to provide strong leadership and direction while they grapple with news about COVID-19 and its implications.

Our ability (or inability) to communicate effectively during this crisis will have a great impact not only on morale, but on our productivity and our capacity to adapt to the changing world.

“Our ability to retrieve and encode information from stored memories can quite easily be hijacked by stressful situations,” said Nick Hobson PhD in his article in Psychology Today, ‘Why Your Brain on Stress Fails to Learn Properly.’

We all react to stress differently. Some of us slow our thinking down and become calculated and strategic. Others can’t articulate or recall stored information when anxiety reaches a certain level. This phenomenon actually has to do with the way our brains work.

Because employees’ stress responses can impair their effectiveness, we need to consider their emotions and help reduce their stress. Our first stop is empathy. Employees are likely experiencing different levels of uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and denial. If these feelings go unchecked, they can turn to helplessness, which is a death sentence for productivity. We need to continually put ourselves in our employee’s shoes so we can anticipate their worries, allay their fears to the best of our ability, and earn their trust.

Being a strong leader does not mean acting like we have all the answers.

“Many communicators and leaders have been taught to sound confident even when they are uncertain. While this may inspire trust, there is a potential for overconfidence, which can backfire. It is important to remember that an over-reassured public isn’t the goal. You want people to be concerned, remain vigilant, and take all the right precautions.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CERC: Psychology of a Crisis)

Communicating with employees through a crisis is not easy, but it’s not impossible either. There are predictable ways that people handle stress and there are proven strategies for providing effective leadership. When you communicate with your staff, try to put the following guidelines from “Psychology of a Crisis” in place:

· Empathize with employees who are fearful. Acknowledge that you’ve never faced anything like this, and it can be very frightening.

· Acknowledge uncertainty. Explain what you know, what you don’t know, and the process you are using to get more information.

· Be respectful, even if employees are in denial. When people behave like the danger isn’t real, let them know how others are responding and provide a consistent message from different trusted sources.

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen drastic changes in the way we work, the way we live, and the way we connect with one another. We are living through an unprecedented crisis. By prioritizing effective communication, we can adapt to these changes, demonstrate our resilience, and band together to face the challenges ahead.