Communicating in Volatile Times

15 February 2021

My 82-year-old father-in-law, a survivor some of Malaya’s worst crises like the Japanese Occupation and the Emergency, has declared this Covid pandemic as the worst disaster he’s ever experienced. One year into the onset of the insidious spread of the virus and no one can say for certain when some light at the end of the tunnel can be glimpsed.

For businesses, it’s been one end of the pendulum or the other – for those who are left standing, it’s either survival mode or boom time. Whether in plenty or in want, volatility is the order of the day because the same reality confronts us all – what’s next? How do I deal with the ever-changing policies, standards, operations, demands, expectations, behaviours, data?

The best leaders, the enduring leaders, are made in a crisis. The divine dual ability to sink into the details in one moment and soar above them in the next is what makes them extraordinary. And one way they display their superiority is in their communication.

Meet in a frequent blend of interactions
In the initial stage of a sudden, or fast burn crisis, communication protocol demands the first holding statement be out within an hour of the incident. Thereafter, updates are given every three hours or less. In the second stage of the crisis when a search and rescue is still ongoing, for instance, and there are no significant developments, spokespeople continue to hold conferences to address various issues like technicalities, rumours and even emotional next-of-kin.

In times of business volatility, this second stage modus operandi should kick in. In small and medium organisations, engaging with staff every week should be expected, but in reality, is not common. There needs to be a blend of formal and informal engagements. Aside from the weekly updates, leaders must make it a point to have coffee chats among three or four staff members, small enough to have each person in the group feel responsible to keep the conversation going and big enough to feel the safety in numbers.

In large organisations, team leads must mirror these small group check-ins while having their own sessions to receive input from their leaders.

These interactions are there for leaders to show up and be present. Frequency is important to establish trust, consistency and accountability.

Frequency is important to establish trust, consistency and accountability.

Even if there’s nothing concrete to report (and that’s more often the case than not), use these sessions to listen, for that, too, is vital part of communication. You may elicit discussion around their challenges, their small victories, their ideas, and even their home front, recognizing that work and home are intrinsically linked.

Empathy over Facts
It’s a quality that is in great demand but short supply. And in times of ambiguity and uncertainty, when urgency compels activity, it is often neglected. But it is precisely in times of instability that the act of communicating heart to heart is highly needful. Empathy is the gift of holding the other’s soul – through trials and triumphs – in that moment of non-judgmental acceptance and revelation. It means, simply put, being human.

Empathy is the gift of holding the other’s soul – through trials and triumphs – in that moment of non-judgmental acceptance and revelation.

Alicia Tillman, the CMO of technology stalwart SAP, hit the nail on its head when she called out the need for empathy in the midst of the turmoil of 2020:

For me, empathy is what this year has been about…As a leader in and steward of the customer journey for a global organization, we need to dial in to the needs of our employees and our customers more than ever before and ensure that we’re responding with action that is significant enough to lead to the change people want to see.

The art of listening, reflecting and responding in mutual understanding is the job of every leader. If you approach these interactions, not just as a talk shop, but a fundamental and productive part of moving the agenda forward, you will find not just more motivated people but also useful insights, as Tillman reveals. Conversations about the challenges SAP’s customers faced and the solidarity SAP experienced with them resulted in free products to the market that targeted the most needful area of their business, like supply chains.

The main reason leaders avoid interactions in times of uncertainty is the discomfort in dealing with difficult conversations. MBA courses aren’t exactly skewed to skills you can’t measure. Authenticity is the posture of speaking and listening without masks and allowing space for honest, heartfelt disclosure.

Authenticity is the posture of speaking and listening without masks and allowing space for honest, heartfelt disclosure.

The first step is to recognize that you don’t have all the answers and having the courage to sit with the incompleteness. This is in no way a celebration of incompetence or ignorance. Rather, it is taking the initiative to open the floor to a shared humanity and by so doing, an invitation to others to contribute to the story bank of experiences and ideas which you all can use constructively to move things forward. Sharing stories of failing forward, if you will. The narrative you weave must be sincere to lend courage to listeners and create a bond of understanding. It is upon this commonalty that relationships are strengthened and unity is formed to push through the crisis.

Statements could sound like:

I want to say that it is true we have experienced a significant reduction in our order book. To that end, we are looking at alternative sources of income through an early release of some of our new projects. We are looking at all ways to boost our topline without going anywhere near headcount. For instance…

I know that many of you are unhappy about the way decisions have been made in what may seem to you like a haphazard way. It is hard be understanding when you have no view of the cockpit and are being tossed around by the turbulence. Let me just say that we are in the same aircraft and we’re going through the same motions as you. The decisions we have made have been done in consultation with our directors – I would like to think that we have put together the best minds. And we are aware that  the changes have caused you a lot uncertainty and is just plain unsettling. I ask you to walk with us through this storm. We will all be affected, some more than others, but this storm will pass and we will be stronger for it.

Clarity is common clarion call in most organisation’s playbook. How about clarity with vulnerability?

When the pandemic first hit, Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson was one of the first few leaders who got his video message out to staff globally. It was a textbook demonstration of empathetic communication, not just for the pedantic ticks in the boxes of what he said, but the sincerity and the vulnerability he displayed in referring to his “new bald look” after his cancer treatment, his admission that he has” never had a more challenging moment than this one” and with a crack in his voice, he reveals how painful it was to let go of staff.

While it is important in a crisis that leaders demonstrate control, in a prolonged drought with limited clarity in sight, inspiration is caught through deep bonds of unity when a leader can reveal his own struggles, his humanity.

In a prolonged drought with limited clarity in sight, inspiration is caught through deep bonds of unity when a leader can reveal his own struggles, his humanity.

Speaking in the first person, “I”, instead of “the company” or “we” or “the board” is one easy way to start:

I have sleepless nights asking myself, “What am I not seeing? What have I missed?”

I have been keeping late nights keeping our investors from around world in different time zones apprised of our situation.

Do I always have all the answers? No. But my job, together with my team, is to scour every nook and cranny for possibilities.

I was having a conversation with my 7-year-old the other day and asked her how her day in school went and she said, “I don’t know.” When I asked her what she’d learnt that day, she replied, “I don’t know.” And when I asked her what we could do together for fun, she responded, “I’m not sure, Mummy.” I think this sense of being out of our depth and being lost is what we’re all feeling.

Personalising your communication assures the recipient of a common humanity in times of uncertainty. Of course, a solid plan of action is a must. But more than that, where the outlook is fluid, the personal touch or even just a word of mutual understanding can be a shot in the arm and a source of inspiration to hope on.

In our hurry to fix what’s broken, it is instinctive for us to hit the play button to start doing and leave the talking on the back burner. But crisis communication is an intrinsic part of crisis management because it isn’t just what you’re doing, but what you’re seen to be doing, that’s part of the fix. So remember to communicate, connect and calibrate, because you’re not just fighting a fire, but you’re leading people through it.

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