Communicating in a Crisis: What to Say When Your Team Fears the Worst

By: Kimberly Gerber | Date: May , 5. 2020.

Will the coronavirus and quarantining ever end?

Will there be (more) layoffs?

Why am I working 12-hour days from home?

Today’s reality combined with the daily flood of news is pretty grim. Those questions above… they’re on your team’s mind – even if they aren’t asking them out loud. The good news is that the coronavirus and quarantining will end eventually, our country will survive this, and you better not sell your stocks — they’re already beginning to bounce back.

Despite what you may know is an inevitable rebound, employees might not feel so optimistic right now. They may be hypervigilant: sucked into the news, pulled in like a magnet, googling updates, and being caught up in the tidal wave of it all. It means they’re probably feeling a bit fearful at the moment.

Here’s the problem with that: fear leads to stress, and stress leads to negative behaviors, which turn into negative outcomes in productivity, creativity, and quality of work.

Your words, energy, and actions — whether positive or negative —  trickle down to your employees and give direction to their own thoughts and behaviors.

So what do you say when your team fears the worst? Here are seven strategies to steady the team during a crisis.

Embody Stability

Louder than words, our actions and the energy they give off to create a powerful current. In fact, the University of Bielefeld concluded that energy is contagious and that our mood changes as we interact with different people throughout the day.

What impact does your presence have?

Leaders should routinely embody stability. You want team members to look at you, listen and think, “Everything is under control. We will be okay.” Be the credible, grounded authority they trust in times of chaos.

Leverage Past Successes for Reassurance

How am I so confident things will turn around? Review the past 20 years; we’ve lived through 9/11, the dot-bomb, Bird Flu, the 2009 housing bubble burst. Not to mention the war in the Middle East, and multiplying natural disasters. We bounced back every time.

To shine hope in your organization, review past facts. List hardships your team dealt with before and how they overcame obstacles. Remind everyone that they’ve prevailed through tough times before, and they will again.

Use Trust-Building Language

In times of stress, people look to those they can trust. Whether you’re talking with a team member one-on-one or sending out a company-wide email, use language that builds trust. Here are some common do’s and don’ts to pay attention to:

1. Avoid absolutes. For example, “always” and “never” are rarely accurate, so don’t use them to reinforce your message.

2. Speak clearly and to the point. Vague responses raise suspicion and confuse people, leaving them to make up their own stories – and that’s never good.

3. Get comfortable saying, “I don’t know that answer yet.” “I don’t know” is a perfectly legitimate response to a tough question. Let people know when you might know important information and how it would be shared.

Build People’s Personal Confidence

Words of encouragement from leaders go a long way toward empowering people to believe that they will be victorious. It also helps in brightening up the mood around the virtual office; redirect everyone’s focus to what can be done to further the company’s objectives.

Clarify Short-Term Goals and Refresh Priorities Weekly

The constant swirl of bad news and ambiguity can easily de-focus everyone and derail productivity. A leader’s job is to keep everyone on track. Your best approach in a crisis is to have a consistent communication cadence which gets people focused on small steps and near-term goals that are actionable and achievable.

Create Open Dialogue

Plan time each week for a group huddle or “office hours” where you check in with people less formally than a status meeting. See what others are up to and create an environment for people to share whatever is on their mind. You might be pleasantly surprised that people are doing well and want to talk about the positive things they are experiencing.

What Matters Most

As an executive or leader, what matters most is how you shepherd your people through the storm. When the crisis has passed, you want to have weathered this storm with the least possible wear and tear on your team and business. Exceptional communication from leaders will GREATLY reduce your team’s stress and help employees feel a sense of stability, focus, and productivity.

One final consideration: these are stressful times for everyone – including yourself. Take time to manage your own stress. Ground your thinking about how you want to navigate this situation. Then, create a strategic narrative that feels authentic, calming, and empowering.

People are looking to their leaders to shepherd them through this crisis and through intentional and productive words and interactions, we can do that.  If you are an executive struggling to lead from a distance, I am here to help. Contact me today to schedule a resiliency coaching session.

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About the Author

Kimberly Gerber

Kimberly Gerber is the founder of Excelerate, an innovative leadership development firm specializing in coaching executives and their teams. For 30+ years, Kimberly has helped transform the impact of more than 1,600 leaders across industry-leading companies including Verizon, Allergan, Whirlpool, Revance, Blizzard, UCLA, Wescom and many others.

The creator of several innovative leadership development programs, Kimberly helps senior leaders create strategic vision, build strong cultures, elevate leadership presence, and finesse communication to strengthen their impact on teams and organizations. Committed to life-long learning, she completed undergrad and graduate studies in Communication, attained her Coaching Certification with Newfield Network, is an MBTI master practitioner and LACBA Certified Mediator.

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