Leadership communication – clarity in crisis

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been making an informal study of world leaders and their communications during the pandemic. It is fascinating to watch each of them from a leadership coach’s perspective. And just from the perspective of someone interested in human behavior!

In a completely apolitical way, I’ve observed and summarised some of the strategies used to deliver messages with clarity about COVID-19.

Below, I will outline some of the observations – for more details and points, you may want to check out my podcast episode on the same topic.

Communicating in these times is challenging, not least because emotions are high. It’s a situation that can generate fear, sadness, anger. Such emotions can contribute to anxiety, depression and aggression. Sometimes people are acting on the emotion before they recognize they are having an emotion.

Further fuelling the complicated nature of this situation, some in our communities have differing opinions and beliefs about the virus, their government, and healthcare. This can lead to different emotions and reactions, further fuelling the complicated nature of this situation.

So there is no doubt that leaders have their work cut out for them right now – with decision-making and communicating. I make no criticism of any leader here. And these are my observations, so will leave to you, dear reader, to make the decision as to how important each of these elements are.

Words and actions reinforcing ‘situation seriousness’

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has created very serious circumstances for the world. When we are faced with a challenging situation and we want people to understand the seriousness, then what we do as leaders is ideally consistent with that need.

So we choose our words carefully to reinforce the seriousness, and our actions must be aligned with that. We will only downplay and undermine our messages if we say it’s serious, then act as if it’s not. For example, if we discuss the seriousness and explain why social distancing is important, yet do not practice that ourselves. If we say it’s serious yet our facial expression and body language is implying we think otherwise. Human beings are incredibly adept at picking up such incongruences – our brains are designed to look for even very subtle clues in body language and facial expressions.

Change management 101

For people to even start to come to terms with restrictions and changes, they need to see the need for change, and that is not always obvious to everyone. With a virus, not everyone will immediately see the reasons behind such severe restrictions. Not everyone is healthcare trained. And even those who are may need some convincing of the need for change, especially in early days of a crisis.

Once we’ve outlined the need for change, it’s about being clear on what exactly is changing. So that people understand what they will be doing differently, as applies to them. What the expectations are.

It’s equally important to explain what’s NOT changing. And this is very often forgotten by leaders. Humans innately like certainty. Explaining what’s not changing helps minimise fear of change.

Simplicity for ‘herd-understanding’

Even a very mild anxiousness about a situation can cloud our processing of information. And this will impact our understanding of it, and therefore whether we act on what we are being asked in the expected way. So leaders need to keep it simple.

Start and finish with the most important messages. Use short sentences, lay-terms, and provide examples. When you are talking to any group, and especially large groups like an entire nation, you actually need to think about how the message will cater to all people in that group. Not everyone understands how viruses can be transferred from human to human, or that it can survive on surfaces to be spread to another person. For many people, this may be the first time they have had to think about these things

And visuals! Many of people process and remember messages better with visual reinforcement.

Pre-empting the next phase

Several world leaders I’ve seen have done a great job of not only explaining the current situation, yet also pre-empting the next phase – whether that be of shut downs, re-opens, testing. As we start to get a handle on the current phase, there is a time to begin to mention what is coming next. This allows people to process, before it actually happens. It can reduce shock, and therefore increase compliance.

Here, simplicity is added with the use of levels or stages. It helps people to understand increasing or decreasing dangers, and what actions are associated and expected for different levels.

Recognising the human element

There are two positive things here I’ve seen leaders do – praise efforts and demonstrate empathy.

As we go through challenging times, leaders are most needing to focus on the problem and find solutions. Yet it’s also helpful to take some time to acknowledge the efforts people are making toward changes, or to implementing a change. And praise people for trying to do the right thing. It helps stay the course and gives people valuable feedback that they are indeed contributing to efforts.

Empathy is a critical leadership trait in my opinion. Empathy does not mean wallowing in someone else’s problems, or giving-in on a decision because someone is having a rough time. Empathy means understanding someone else’s perspective, challenges or situation. Leaders giving indications that they know people are feeling hardships. That they understand the impacts. Long past major crises people will forget or forgive actions, yet they will likely never forget how you made them feel.

Appealing to a basic human need

I’ll finish my reflection on communication points with the concept of teams. It’s really about the human need to belong. Humans do have a natural inclination to belong to a community or group they have commonality with. To feel that they belong, are accepted by others.

As leaders we can appeal to this need to belong in negative or positive ways – for good, or evil, if you like. History is full of examples of this.

So many leaders in our communities are currently appealing to the need to work together. ‘We are in this together’ is a phrase I have heard countless times over the past months. And it’s true. As the human race and as a planet, we are all in this together, whether we like it or not.

It’s heartening to see many leaders around the world appealing in positive and cohesive ways to this sense of team – whether national leaders, state, county, council leaders, community leaders, healthcare leaders, team leaders, family leaders, and individuals demonstrating what I call self-leadership.

These times will define us. Our communication is critical to this.

If you would like to understand a few more examples and points on this communication in crisis observation, then Engage Your Healthcare Leadership podcast episode contains more!

And, if you would like to join a community of like minded people making a positive impact in healthcare, then please feel free to join our private Facebook group – We Lead Healthcare.

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