Leadership Communication During Times of Uncertainty


 — July 12th, 2023

Leadership Communication During Times of Uncertainty

In times of crisis or uncertainty, people look to leaders for reassurance and guidance.

How leaders act during these times can set the tone for an organization. That’s why it’s so important to take a considered approach.

In this blog, we look at the role of a leader during a crisis and determine why communication is the key to successfully navigating challenging times.

Understanding the Context of Uncertainty

There are many reasons for uncertainty in an organization, from general economic and political crises to specific security risks and shifting corporate deals. They have in common, though, the atmosphere they can create in an organization where confusion, anxiety, disengagement, and frustration thrive.

What are Common Sources of Uncertainty?

Here are some of the more common causes of uncertainty in an organization and how they can impact the day-to-day business and workplace environment.

  • Economic uncertainty: typically, economic conditions ebb and flow, this is normal, but there are times when some economies face more prolonged periods of uncertainty, which can impact an organization’s bottom line, ability to grow, and ability to retain all its staff.
  • Political uncertainty: leaders matter in all areas of society, including government. Political leaders can directly influence their economies, either positively or negatively. During extreme political instability, organizations can struggle to maintain business as usual, leading to genuine workplace uncertainty.
  • Technological uncertainty: Security and data breaches make regular news headlines these days. Granted, the more extreme cases end up in the news, but so many organizations face technology outages due to security breaches every day. This can cause uncertainty in an organization as employees have limited access to the tools they use every day, plus there’s the added problem of how the issue developed in the first place.
  • Corporate uncertainty: Mergers and takeovers happen all the time. And many of these are managed correctly. Occasionally though, organizations can be the subject of a hostile takeover, or a merger can fall apart at the last minute. Layoffs are often a byproduct of mergers where roles are duplicated, or new management has new ideas and plans. In this environment, workers can fear for their jobs, mainly if their primary news source is the rumor mill.
  • Leadership uncertainty: Global TV hit Succession showed how chaotic leadership tussles can get. Whether it’s a straight-up succession question, a la Waystar Roy, or a leadership vacuum where an organization struggles to appoint a new leader, it can be confusing for employees.

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What Impact Does Uncertainty Have on an Organization?

Any uncertainty can have a significant impact on an organization and its workforce. The effects are wide-ranging, from loss of productivity to a rise in employees’ mental health issues.

  • Decrease in engagement: maintaining employee engagement levels is like walking a tightrope. Any little blip can have a direct impact. During a crisis, employee engagement is often the first casualty. Fluctuations in the atmosphere, rising uncertainty, rumors, and confusion lead to a fall-off in engagement. And we’ve spoken many times about how critical employee engagement is to an organization.
  • Lost productivity: this is a byproduct of a drop-off in engagement. Disengaged workers can become more complacent at work and naturally less productive.
  • Absenteeism: if communication and transparency are not forthcoming, workers can check out altogether, using sick days or personal days.
  • Employee turnover: organizations that fail to keep workers up-to-date during a crisis risk losing the hearts and minds of their employees. This could lead to an increase in staff turnover, which could have serious implications for the business in the long term.

Understanding the Importance of a Leader’s Communication Skills

By their nature, times of uncertainty are, well, uncertain. They can be difficult to predict and guard against, and even if organizations see them coming down the track, crises can still throw up challenges and confusion.

Effective communication is essential in this environment to steady the ship, but many factors make it challenging to get the message out there.

What Challenges do Leaders Face when Trying to Communicate During Uncertainty?

Let’s look at some problems leaders can have when communicating during a crisis.

More information: data can be hard to come by during a crisis, particularly at the beginning. The COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent example of this. It was a developing situation that was changing every day. Things move fast in all areas of today’s world making it difficult to pin down the necessary information or provide all the details people may want.

Too much information: on the other hand, social media has replaced news outlets for many people. But it can be unreliable. Often rumors are published on social media without sources and attribution. Leaders may struggle to make their voices heard in this mass of information where truth can often be lost.

Communication channels have been affected: a crisis can occasionally impact an organization’s channels. For example, access to communications channels may be limited or unavailable during a security breach or ransomware attack. This can present a severe challenge for leaders as they try to communicate with employees and provide guidance.

Legal implications: in certain situations, leaders can be restricted in what they can say for legal reasons. This can complicate an uncertain position as leaders need to provide more information.

Reputation management: at times of uncertainty, organizations will want to avoid reputational damage. This can knock on what leadership can and cannot disclose to employees. Navigating the dos and don’ts in this situation can be tricky for leaders who want transparency but may need to keep key information close to their chest.

How Important is the Leadership Role During a Crisis?

Psychologically speaking, the role of a leader during times of crisis cannot be overstated. This fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review says the most influential leaders provide a type of ‘holding’ during an emergency. Holding refers to a leader’s ability to contain and interpret what’s happening in this context. “They think, offer reassurance, orient people, and help them stick together. “

Central to this holding is good communication skills.

Why Effective Communication is so Important

Contrary to what some organizations think, the best thing to do during a crisis is to be open and candid in communication. Some organizations may think they shouldn’t respond to uncertainty, like when talks of potential layoffs or mergers become public. But silence is not the answer. Rumors thrive in the absence of official communication.

With no other information, employees take the rumors at face value, leading to confusion and a breakdown in trust.

As any good leader knows, trust is critical. And it is even more important during difficult times.

Good leadership communication centers around reinforcing connections — we’re all in this together is a standard, important message.

Sets the Tone

Timely, official communication from leaders defines how an organization handles a crisis. Firm, clear, and frequent communication creates a solid foundation and builds confidence.

Offers Guidance

Employees (and stakeholders) want to know that an organization has a plan to deal with the crisis. Clear, timely communication from leadership needs to provide that plan, or at the very least, the outline of a project. This will help to settle nerves and foster that business-as-usual mentality that is important in uncertain times.

Reduces Anxiety and Provides Stability

Effective leadership communication lets employees feel confident in the information they’re receiving. This increases trust, reduces anxiety, and creates a stable atmosphere.

What are the Key Principles of Effective Leadership Communication?

Communication is a vital part of being a good leader. And it is even more critical during times of uncertainty. We need only look at the global COVID-19 pandemic when good leadership (and poor leadership) was on show. New Zealand’s former prime minister Jacinda Ardern is widely heralded as providing good communication during that time. Arguably her overriding communication skill was combining decisiveness with empathy. These are two of the core characteristics of effective leadership communication.

  • Timely
  • Frequent
  • Clear
  • Honest
  • Decisive
  • Empathetic
  • Calm

Let’s take a look at these in more detail.

Timely: leaders need to get their message out there quickly. The official announcement needs to be the first communication employees receive. This establishes the leader as the primary source of factual information. This will become even more important if the situation is prolonged and contentious.

Frequent: maintain a continuous line of communication. Set up a regular schedule; even if new developments have not occurred, leaders need to be seen and heard. They offer a reliable presence in a time of crisis.

Clear: situations can be complicated, but good communication demystifies these complex scenarios. A precise, simple touch ensures everyone understands what’s happening and, importantly, the organization’s plans.

Honest: transparency is so essential in a time of crisis. If leaders are being open and honest, there is less opportunity for gossip and rumor to take hold.

Decisive: it’s crucial to make it clear to employees that the organization is acting to resolve or manage the crisis. Good leaders will communicate their plans, reassuring employees that they are taking action.

Empathetic: employees will be anxious and even angry. Leaders must acknowledge these emotions and communicate that. This will help to build up the trust that is so important at difficult times.

Calm: above all, leaders need to keep quiet. All communications must be measured, clear, and calm, with no unnecessary information that may cause distress. Leaders are the organization's voice, and their words and how they deliver them have great power.

How Internal Communications can Support Leaders in Uncertainty

Crises are generally unexpected. While problems may not be inevitable, it’s wise to have a crisis communications plan. The plan should set out the who, what, when, and how of communicating with employees during uncertain times.

  • Who: the message should come from leaders but sent out through official internal communications channels.
  • When: communication should begin as quickly as possible after the crisis emerges (before, if possible). After the initial message, there should be frequent communication throughout the situation.
  • How: the plan should set out the best channels for the message. Remember, the goal is to reach all employees so that an omnichannel approach will be necessary.

And now for the trickiest part of the plan.

What: here is where organizations agree on what the message will be. This is where they set the tone of the message, decide how much information they will communicate, and what they will tell employees. This is difficult as we’re talking about events that haven’t happened, and as we’ve outlined above, crises can come in many different forms. But, with as much detail as possible, organizations should detail the approach they will take with messaging during a problem and establish the ground rules for communication. The plan will help leaders to react quickly if a crisis happens and ensures they can communicate quickly and effectively.

A Quick Guide on What to Communicate

What has happened: outline the scenario.

  • What does this mean: in clear terms, describe what this means for the organization
  • How is the organization dealing with the situation: what plans are in place for the future?
  • We’ve got your back: detail the steps the organization is taking to minimize the impact on employees.
  • Be positive: stress the positive as much as possible. Talk about other similar situations that the organization has survived.

Uncertainty can come in many different guises. It can be challenging to prepare for times of uncertainty, but having a crisis communication strategy in place is a good starting point. Strong communication stems from good leadership. An organization’s leaders should be central to any crisis communication plan. They can steady the ship and settle employees’ anxiety with timely, consistent, and open communication. By being upfront and transparent with their contacts, leaders can go a long way toward guiding their organization through a crisis.

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