Leadership Communication in Crisis

by | Crisis Response, Leadership, Resilience

One of the deadliest viruses on earth had now almost literally arrived on his doorstep. He had received a call from one of the docs on shift- it was confirmed. The patient that had just arrived in the outdoor, covered triage area around the corner from his house, bleeding from the eyes and nose, was positive for Ebola.

As the country director of one of the poorest countries in West Africa, he and his team lived on a close-knit compound, along with their spouses and families. The compound was also shared by several mission agencies and humanitarian aid organizations and housed the region’s primary and most well-equipped hospital.

A team of several hundred personnel spread between three bases at opposite ends of this small country, multiple families with children of all ages from his organization and others, hospital staff, local staff, and patients; all were looking to him for leadership and guidance. As this regionalized Ebola outbreak continued to spread like wildfire and eventually drew international media attention, the pressure, fear, stress, and hours of frantic work for all continued to escalate. Caring and consistent communication was needed and immediately implemented. The psychological support, emotional relief, spiritual strength, and resilience development these three consistent crisis communication choices integrated into his team and their families throughout the outbreak is spoken of to this day, now almost six years later.

Concise, clear communication is a foundational component to good leadership and especially highlighted in necessity when crises arise. Critical incidents or emergencies will always accentuate the strengths and weaknesses of leaders. Good leaders have the potential to emerge into greatness. Mediocre or poor leaders will almost inevitably show themselves to be inept in the chaos of traumatic events.

These three communication principles can make a difference between successful leadership that enhances team resilience through a crisis vs. leadership failure that results in more significant trauma and stress.

Communication must be honest. Honest communication is surprisingly hard in a crisis environment. Access to accurate information can be sporadic, emotions are often running high, and even experienced leaders can react poorly under these unexpected and rapidly changing contexts. Here are a few suggestions on how to communicate honestly under complicated conditions.

How to communicate honestly when…

You don’t have the answers: It is more important to verbalize “I don’t know” than to say nothing at all. However, let your team know you are in this together, you are figuring it out, and that they can trust you for accurate information as soon as it becomes available.

You have the answers but are not allowed to give out the information: This can be the case for various reasons. Sometimes there are investigations into events that cannot be discussed. Other times, there may be pieces of the situation that are inappropriate to be shared with others. If this is the case, say that you cannot give out that information and explain why. In most cases, people understand the limitations of leadership when those limitations are presented to them.

Your event is ongoing and rapidly changing: Tell your team that this is happening. Help them understand you are willing to give the information you have, but decisions may vary based on incoming data. Let them know you are working with as much information as is at your disposal, you know they need to make decisions for their wellbeing too, and that you will support them in their choices to the best of your ability.

You have to give bad news you know will cause a person pain: Get to the point. There is no easy way to do this, and trying to blunt the blow will only seem dishonest. Don’t beat around the bush. Give the bad news right away and then bet. There to help the person process the information. Expect adverse reactions to this kind of communication. Any response, whether positive or negative, is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. Know that facing others’ reactions and being present in the messiness of crisis is the leadership price. Your honesty and integrity in the process are of greater value than another’s reaction in the moment.

These suggestions should be common sense, but many leaders fall into the trap of bending the truth to make themselves, the situation, or others appear in a particular light in a crisis. Fearing potential reactions, and often out of a selfish desire to avoid hard or messy conversations, leaders may minimize, or even omit, information that could be beneficial. False narratives or missing information (if discovered) will always undermine the integrity of the leader. Once trust in the leader is broken, it is tough (if not impossible) for trust to be earned again.

Communication must be frequent and regular. Your team will crave information. Even small lapses in time without contact will seem like large voids. In a vacuum of accurate information, people will naturally speculate about what is happening. This speculation is rarely beneficial and can even be extremely destructive as assumptions are made without context. When possible, schedule regular briefing times for your team to fill them in on new information and decision-making processes. Even if you do not have new information, schedule the time. The team touchpoint is invaluable, and having a pre-set time will build trust when your team knows they will be kept in the loop.

Communication should be repetitive. Many leaders do not communicate because they feel they have nothing new to add. However, the emotions of a crisis will often prevent people from thinking at the highest capacity. They are being bombarded with stimuli that they may not mentally and emotionally process fast enough. Your team may need pieces of information repeated multiple times before they hear what they need to hear. You will find that even when you engage in a one-on-one conversation, individuals in crisis will miss parts of the communication. Gaps in information retention is a normal, common reaction. Don’t hesitate to say the same thing over and over again.

Additional note: What if your own emotions and reactions to the crisis at hand are creating a situation where you cannot communicate effectively? Know that this can be common and does not represent a failure on your part as a leader. No one knows how they will react to critical incident stress until they face it. Good leaders delegate what they cannot do themselves. Find someone who can be a non-anxious presence in the anxious environment. Task them with coming up with a communication plan and support them with appropriate talking points. However, do know that your team will need to hear from you at some point shortly and plan accordingly. You are still the leader, and your followers will be seeking your guidance. You will need to rise to the occasion even if you are a fellow victim of the circumstances.

There will always be voids in communication, especially in crisis communication. The very nature of critical incidents tends to lend itself toward miscommunication. Being intentional about following these honest, regular, and repetitive communication principles will help you develop mental and emotional resilience in your teams as you lead through a crisis.

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