What should you say? Leadership communication during the coronavirus pandemic

March 26, 2020

By: Amy Young

7 tips to get your messaging right AND create a positive culture in the process

Amy Young

Amy Young

In the past week, I’ve been approached by many leaders asking me for best practices on communicating to employees during times of crisis. Leaders know stakes are high, but are often at a loss as how to craft these messages. Fortunately there are strategies that can help with navigating this communication challenge that you can put to work right away.

Here is the good news: if you get it right, you can make significant strides in building a positive culture in your workplace. Crises – such as the coronavirus pandemic – disrupt organizational norms and expectations that are typically crystalized under normal conditions. Espousing and modeling the desired values during this time of crisis will enable your employees to create stronger bonds, clarify your shared principles, and rally behind a collective purpose.

  1. If you are writing to convey important information, concisely state the “what” and the “why” towards the beginning of the message in a highly visible way. Many leaders are having to send messages to employees about rapidly unfolding circumstances about how work will be carried out during the crisis. Often these messages have too much information and as a result the most important points are easy to miss. You want to concisely state the key point at the beginning of the message when attention is high. If there are important details, include them in an attachment or a link. Also, tell the reader why you are making the change as this will help them understand its importance and increase the likelihood of their willingness to comply.
  2. Use the opportunity to provide compassionate reassurance as this is what employees need the most from you now. Put yourself in their shoes to think about what they are most worried about. Most often, the primary concern is job security, but with the coronavirus pandemic, employees are probably just as worried (if not more) about the health and safety of themselves and others. Assure them you are thinking about their wellbeing and tell them what you are able to do to address their health and employment security.
  3. Share with them your appreciation of their contributions. If they have been going the extra mile to help customers and co-workers, let them know that you notice and appreciate what they have done. Don’t assume that your employees can read you mind (because they can’t). Recognition such as this says to your employees “you matter.”
  4. Let them know how their work contributes to your shared values and higher purpose. Call out how their work is making a difference for the larger good, whether it means bringing value to the team, your organization, or the broader community. Connecting employees’ day-to-day tasks to these loftier aspirations provides a beacon for employees. Helping them remain focused on the larger purpose will help maintain their spirits and help them avoid ruminating on their anxieties.
  5. Call out the value of demonstrating compassion and concern for each other. Leaders need to be explicit that expressing care for each other is valued in the organization, otherwise employees can easily assume such expressions are frowned upon. Many workplaces have unspoken assumptions that professionalism means being indifferent, stoic, and unemotive. When you demonstrate compassion and call it out as a welcomed behavior, you are giving your employees permission to be this way with each other.
  6. Ask for their help. Begin with the assumption that employees want to contribute (because most often they do). Inviting them to contribute to the solution provides a much-needed sense of agency and control during times of crisis. Often leaders are reluctant to ask for help because they think they are expected to have all of the answers. As long as you are actively working on solutions, conveying realistic optimism, and are genuinely concerned about their wellbeing, employees will be forgiving if you don’t have all the answers.
  7. Communicate often even when there are no events or decisions to update them on. Letting employees know that you are aware of the issues at hand and are currently working on them may actually be news to them. When there is no information, we tend to create our own narrative to fill in the blanks. During times of crisis, it is easy for employees to create a narrative that leaders are unaware of the problems and everyone is headed for disaster. Let them know you are working on it will relieve them of their anxieties.

By definition, times of crisis bring stress and anxiety into the workplace. But they also can offer the opportunity to bring the very best of the human experience, such as compassion, resilience, fortitude, and solidarity into the workplace. Taking the time to share your humanity in a well-crafted message will stay with your organization well after the crisis has passed.

Amy Young, PhD
Faculty, Business Communications
Faculty Director, Center for Positive Organizations Consortium
Ross School of Business