How to Communicate Honestly in Turbulent Times

by | Apr 7, 2020 | Leadership, People

What we’re seeing today with the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything most of us have experienced before. This situation requires leaders to communicate frequently and honestly with their teams. People are thirsty to understand what is happening and how it affects them.

Leaders are in the difficult position of not knowing what is going to happen next. Our prior experiences—the experiences that help us make educated guesses about the future—don’t provide the guidance needed in this situation. We just don’t know how thing will unfold.

How to Communicate Honestly With Your Team

So, what is a leader to do? We’d love to provide answers and direction, but often we don’t have answers, or the answers are pretty bad news. I have a basic formula that I follow for communicating in turbulent or difficult times, and I’ll get to that in a bit. First, I want to share my biases about how leaders should communicate with their teams.

I believe that people are smart, and they “get it.” They can see the world around them, both inside and outside of the organization, and they have a sense for what is happening. I believe that people want to know that YOU get it. They want to know that their leader is in tune with reality. They want to hear the truth, even if it’s a tough message. They want honesty, and they want candor. They want to know that you’re human and they want to feel that you’re genuine.

What they DON’T’ want is a superficial rah-rah speech, or a Pollyanna view of the situation. They DON’T want promises, that deep down they know that you can’t keep.

Formula to Communicate In Turbulent Times

With those biases as context, here is my formula for communicating honestly in turbulent times. This format is generally meant for a presentation to a group, but the same format can be adapted to an email update or other forms of communication.

1. Say why you’re gathered together

The first thing that you should say to your team is why you have pulled them together. It can be a fairly benign purpose, such as “We’re here to share the latest information on the crisis, and how we’re responding to it.” Or, it can announce a major change, like “We’re here because we don’t have the sales orders to keep all of you employed, and there are going to be layoffs.”

Some leaders hesitate to say the purpose. They throw out all kinds of flowery words talking about the company history of survival, and the strength of our people, and the pain that they feel, etc. All the while this is going on, anxiety is building. The longer the leader talks, the more that people are thinking “Oh, this must be really bad. Why doesn’t she just come out and say it.”

Attempting to provide an inspirational message at the beginning of the communication is noble, but misguided. A long-winded introduction may have the intent of softening the message, but it has just the opposite effect.

2. Say what you know

It is essential to share the known facts. This is pretty straightforward. You put key information on the table. It might include:

    • Orders have dropped off by xx%.
    • The governor’s orders require our operations to close.
    • We are filing for a Paycheck Protection Loan.
    • We need $x.x million of revenue per month to break even, and we’re about yy% below that threshold.

3. Say what you don’t know

It is important to disclose those things that are not known to you. Examples might be:

    • We don’t know when business will start returning back to normal.
    • We don’t know if this is going to be a V-shaped recovery or a longer, slower climb.
    • While we know we have to reduce costs, including our staffing costs, we don’t know how we’re going to do that–whether it’s pay cuts, or reduced hours, or furloughs, or layoffs. We just don’t know yet.

My experience with delivering the “I don’t know” message is that people are usually understanding that you may not have all of the answers right now. They will likely ask when WILL you know, but they’ll appreciate the fact that you confronted the elephant in the room, and you were open and honest.

4. Say how you feel

This may seem out of place, but a critical element of the communication is to share your own feelings. You aren’t a robot. You’re human too, and you’re going through much of the same emotions that they are. This isn’t about trying to garner sympathy. This is about being human and genuine. This is a personal reaction, and not a scripted reaction from HR.One example of sharing how you feel might be: “I want you to know that this situation scares me. That doesn’t lower my resolve for getting us through it, but it’s a frightening time. That said, it’s heart-warming to see how we’re coming together as a team.” (This will apply whether the team is physically next to each other or not).

5. Say what’s next

Now it’s time to let the team know what is going to happen next. There may be concrete steps, like “Starting next Monday, we will be cutting back to 4-day weeks. You will receive a letter from your supervisor this Thursday letting you know the impacts to your pay and benefits.” However, a next step could also be a little more vague like “We’re going to sit tight for now, and see what happens with sales orders during the next two weeks. At that point we’ll re-assess our plans.” Even the less-definitive answer set expectation with your team.

6. Wrap it up

Finally, thank your team genuinely and let them know when they can expect to hear from you again. This would also be an appropriate time to take questions.

If you’d like to discuss this further, please reach out to me at:

Phone: 651-398-9280


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