Thought Leadership

10 Timeless Principles of Leadership Communication During a Crisis

by Professor Michelle L. Buck, PhD
Clinical Professor of Leadership, Kellogg School of Management
Adjunct Lecturer, Northwestern University School of Communication

In times of unprecedented change and anxiety, leaders often feel they don’t have the answers they wish they could give, and wonder how to offer hope when they themselves are struggling for greater clarity. However, just as often, they can be more inspiring than they realize. Here are ten recommendations for effective leadership communication that help at any time—but are even more important and potent during periods of uncertainty and challenge.

The key to all of them? How leaders communicate is often as important as what they communicate, and it’s all about focusing on the people they lead.

  1. Communicate more rather than less, sooner rather than later
    This is not rocket science, but it’s also easier said than done. Leaders often wait for more information or greater clarity before communicating with their teams, only to lose those teams to anxiety and speculation. When we are the ones waiting for information from others, we know how strongly we crave any kind of update. It’s comparable to a flight delay at the airport. As time drags on, we want frequent updates, even if the truth is that there’s no new information yet. Some of the tips that follow address what leaders can say when it feels like there’s nothing to say.

  2. Acknowledge and appreciate the team’s experience
    Human beings want to be acknowledged, heard and seen. When people are in the midst of adversity, it goes a long way for a leader to listen to their team’s experiences and mirror back to them what they have heard. For example, a team leader might say, “I know many of you are struggling to work from home while also coordinating your children’s schoolwork,” or may be mindful when employees, especially Black Americans, need extra space or support following the horrors of recent racial injustice and killings, making it near impossible to focus or feel as productive as usual. It’s important for leaders to acknowledge concerns and appreciate the adaptability and accomplishments of the team during times of crisis. Gallup reports that the degree to which employees agree with the statement, “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person” is a critical component of employee engagement. Leading with empathy and compassion is the right thing to do, and its impact can be profound.

  3. Distinguish between what is known and what is not
    When people feel confused by constantly changing information, they sometimes look to leaders for greater stability and clarity than is possible at the time. At a minimum, leaders can distinguish what is known from what is not known. I recall observing this in November 2008 from US president-elect Barack Obama. Obama had been elected but would not be inaugurated until January 2009. In the meantime, as the global economy was collapsing, reporters bombarded him with questions. It was not yet his role to make decisions, and moreover, no one at that time knew exactly what would happen or had clear solutions. At a press conference, Obama essentially articulated, “Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, and here’s what we need to do in the meantime.”

    Leaders are often reluctant to say, “I don’t know” due to the fear that vulnerability will be perceived as weakness. If vulnerability is reframed, however, as the honesty to acknowledge what we don’t know, and if it is coupled with identifying what we do know, what we need to do and the questions we need to ask (see below), then honesty can be transformed into a source of strength, trust and credibility. When people are anxious with uncertainty, even “difficult” news can be comforting when they feel they know what is happening.

  4. Beware of the “illusion of transparency”
    In times of uncertainty, even when leaders know they need to communicate more with their teams rather than less, it’s natural to feel as if there is nothing new to say. However, the illusion of transparency, the phenomenon when people overestimate the extent to which their thoughts and feelings are apparent to others, suggests that leaders often have more information to share than they realize. Answers to questions such as, “Who are the decision makers? or, “How many alternatives are being considered?” or, “What decision criteria are being used?” may seem obvious to the leader, but are far from transparent to those left waiting for information. An antidote to the illusion of transparency is the power of perspective-taking: if we were in our team’s shoes, what questions would we have, and what information would we want to know? Brainstorm as much as possible when it feels like there’s nothing to say, because you may be assuming some information is transparent to others when it is not.

  5. Reinforce shared values and purpose
    When people are yearning for some stability, which is actually elusive at best, reinforcing core values and purpose can provide reassuring consistency and inspiration. Remind people of the shared narrative: who are we as an organization, and what do we value and believe? What is our history that has brought us to this place? What is our purpose, and how do we contribute to the greater good? Workers gain enormous motivation and pride when they know how their work connects with overall shared values and purpose. An organization might highlight their core value of innovation in the face of great challenges. Another might celebrate their resilient history of overcoming great obstacles. In communications I have received from Northwestern University during the pandemic, a recurring theme focuses on the safety and wellbeing of students, staff and faculty. The core value is consistent in all communications. How that safety will be achieved is fluid as the data change. Leaders can use challenges as opportunities to reinforce values, purpose and identity and in the process, offer some semblance of stability and inspiration.

  6. Humanize the message
    Facts and figures may inform people, but they are not likely to inspire them. Listen to the experiences of the team you lead. In communications, celebrate the stories of their effort, adaptability and the impact of their work upon others. Leaders may also share how they are navigating the situation themselves to show that, “We’re all in this together.” However, leaders must remember that the reason you talk about yourself is not just to talk about yourself. The reason to talk about your own experiences is to reinforce values and purpose and create connection. Authentic and primary focus on the people you lead is critical to trust and credibility.

  7. Explain decisions
    Human beings want to know why. Even when they disagree or don’t like decisions that are being made, people respond positively to explanations. Why is this initiative being chosen rather than other alternatives? How will this course of action get us closer to our desired results? Explanations should be aligned with and reinforce core values and purpose, thereby providing stability, identity and meaning. For example, Northwestern University has explained many decisions and policies during the pandemic by citing the priority of safety and wellbeing of the community. How that will be achieved continues to shift based on the changing data and circumstances, but the underlying explanation for decisions is reinforced.

  8. Identify important questions
    Particularly in times of rapid change, leaders often do not have all the answers but differentiate themselves by the courage of the questions they ask. We determine our collective future by the questions we ask and by a mindset of curiosity, learning and growth. Leaders can identify the questions or empower their teams to identify the questions. Then they can invite the team to “live the questions,” as the poet Rainier Maria Rilke suggested, and explore solutions. Imagine a team rallying around questions such as, “How can we cut costs? How can we be creative in surviving this crisis? What would it take to actually thrive during this time? How can we use our talent and our resources to contribute to others during this time?” Gallup finds that workers are more engaged and more productive when they can learn and grow on the job and when they believe their opinion counts. Asking courageous questions that inspire growth galvanizes energy and focus.

  9. Outline next steps
    People are more motivated when expectations are clear. Whether they agree with the decisions and policies or not, people want to know what to do and when to expect updates. What are the new priorities? How should we allocate our time and energy?

  10. Follow up
    Again, this isn’t rocket science, but as demands on a leader’s attention and energy escalate, so does the ease of losing track of what it feels like to be left waiting for the next update. To maintain trust and engagement, it is critical that leaders set up a timeline for regular communications and follow up at the scheduled time. If it feels like there’s nothing new to say, review this list again and repeat, looking for opportunities to acknowledge and appreciate the team’s experience, to connect with them and learn from their experience, and to reinforce core values and purpose.
Many of these recommendations are common sense, but they are also easier said than done. They are timeless, and yet extremely timely. Ultimately, it is not just what leaders say, but how they communicate and interact with their teams that enables agility, resilience and effectiveness in moving forward together.

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Michelle Buck is a Clinical Professor of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She previously served as the School's first Director of Leadership Initiatives from 2006 to 2013, designing and coordinating opportunities for personal leadership development to complement the School's academic curriculum. She has also served as academic director of numerous Kellogg executive programs, including partnership programs with Fundacao dom Cabral in Brazil as well as customized company-specific programs.

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