It feels like the crises are multiplying like the heads of the Hydra in the Greek myth: For every head that is cut off, two new ones appear. Signs of fatigue are understandable in such situations, but it is precisely then that united forces would be put to good use. How can I, as a manager, mobilize energies now?
How communication scores in the crisis
Despite difficult economic prospects with an energy crisis, inflation and the threat of recession, Economics Minister Robert Habeck is currently the most popular politician in Germany. Many observers explain this with his way of communicating. Observers also attribute the high level of acceptance for extremely strict lockdown measures in New Zealand to Jacinda Ardern’s communication.
Above all, crisis means uncertainty and fear. Risky pitfalls lurk everywhere:
- Rumors arise when trust is lacking. Honesty and personal conversations help now.
- Misinformation spreads and fills supposed information gaps. Transparency and speed are needed here.
- Fear and uncertainty create stress and, as a permanent burden, lead to paralysis or indifference. A sense of security in the group and of self-efficacy can counteract this.
The right communication helps to ensure the ability to act, to activate creativity and to tackle necessary changes.
The 3 x 3 of crisis communication
A crisis is perceived as a threat to elementary basic needs*.
Communication affects the individual threat perception and can influence the reactions to it.
How to create trust
- Communicate openly, clearly and honestly, e.g. also: “I don’t know yet how …”.
- Take into account the different risk perceptions of the people you are talking to, communicate at eye level, e.g., ask: “Are you afraid that …?”
- Formulate in a way that is specific to the target group and easy to understand.
How to strengthen confidence
- Communicate in a future-oriented and solution-oriented way, i.e. instead of: “We want to preserve what we have achieved and not lose anyone”, better: “In order to continue to be successful in … we want to use our know-how in … to …”
- Strengthen the sense of self-efficacy and make it clear that we are not helplessly at the mercy of the situation, e.g. by referring to applicable experiences: “When we were faced with the challenge … , some of you had the idea of … , which enabled us to … achieved.”
- Always make sure to use positive phrases, because our brains are more interested in potential dangers than in the fact that something is safe.
How you generate commitment
- Strengthen the group feeling by exchanging ideas in as many alternating groups as possible, e.g. with cross-divisional bar camp formats.
- Emphasize shared values.
- Make it clear that everyone is affected and contributes to the solution, e.g., by having individual groups present how they deal with the situation.
Communication clutter is just as damaging as not communicating at all. Therefore, ensure a coordinated approach:
- Assemble expertise to communicate credibly, e.g. through a centralized information gathering (expert task force), so that everyone can draw on the same facts, figures and background in their communication.
- Inform those who are more affected first.
- Establish multipliers who inform within their peer group and support them, e.g. with guidelines.
- Ensure regular updates so that there is no room for rumors and misinformation.
- Rumors and misinformation can stick in the memory if they are repeated – even in the context of a clarification. Therefore, it is better to replace the retracted information directly with new information.
Through sharing opportunities in different settings, you’ll strengthen understanding, empathy, and engagement:
- Promote a system of mutual support, e.g., through regular facilitated, informal meetings in the individual groups.
- Use many channels, not only push (e.g., events) but also pull options (e.g., portals for gleaning).
- Make sure you are accessible as a decision maker, e.g., with open Q&A sessions (“ask me anything” – AMA for short), or by involving teams in defining crisis management actions.
- Organize retrospectives to keep perspective on positive intermediate outcomes. When you frame interim goals in OKR terms – metrics that indicate the right path has been taken – successes can be seen even in crises.
- Take the opportunity to train people and encourage them to learn things and strengthen their own competencies.
Conclusion on crisis communication
Crisis communication is effective, both positively and negatively. Providing clear, understandable, fast and correct information is a challenge. Conveying confidence without overplaying the situation is not easy. Honesty, empathy and constant practice are important.
Even outside of crises, these four principles promote a productive and pleasant working atmosphere:
- Communicate openly and honestly
- Argue constructively, solution-oriented
- Take an interest in the other person’s perspective and ideas for a solution
- Speak in pictures (especially positive ones)
* Neuroscientist David Rock describes these basic needs in his “SCARF” model as ‘Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness’.