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Leadership Toolkit

What The Best Leaders Do to communicate with employees during critical times

Janet Pilcher, Ph.D.

Employees are our most valued asset for achieving organizational excellence and for managing crises when they appear. From research over the years we know that leaders play a significant role in reducing employee anxieties and reassuring employees by reminding them that they have confidence in their ability to prevail in a crisis. Leaders are the ones who provide hope for the future.

In general, executive leaders represent “purpose” to employees. When people feel good about senior leadership, they feel good about the organization. In a crisis, it’s more important than ever that employees have strong positive feelings about where they work. Employees want to know that they are doing worthwhile work and that what they do makes a difference in helping an organization achieve excellence. When a crisis occurs, executive leaders become even more important in guiding employees. Again, employees depend on their executive leaders to reduce their anxieties and give them confidence.

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When people feel good about senior leadership, they feel good about the organization. In a crisis, it’s more important than ever that employees have strong positive feelings about where they work.


Employees need to hear the voice of the leader. That’s what this leadership toolkit is about – how the best leaders in the best organizations communicate with employees during a crisis.

This crisis communication toolkit includes two sections. The first section focuses on our “leadership mindset,” which is understanding what we stand for by connecting our personal values to organizational values. Also, structure is more important than ever when we are managing a crisis. We focus on routines and rituals and how the two influence the way we communicate. Therefore, our values drive the attitude behind the actions we take. It’s important to get that right as part of our mindset.  The second section provides three essential communication tools and tactics when managing a crisis.

Leadership Mindset for Crisis Communication

Know What You Stand For

We have personal values, and we lead organizations with focused values that define how we treat others.  As leaders, these two closely align.  As we prepare to communicate with others, let’s take a moment to take the following actions:

  1. Reflect on our personal values. Reconnect personal values to the organizational values. Some values will resonate with us more than others during a time of crisis.  Note these values.
  2. Start every day remembering that our actions will be guided by these values. Make this action a daily ritual.
  3. Ensure that we align our actions to our values, even in the most difficult times.
  4. Stay true to our values by not letting anyone or any circumstance get in the way of our living these values.


When we understand what we stand for, it’s easier to use our values to guide the way we engage and interact with others.


The connection of our personal and organizational values influences the way we communicate with others. When we understand what we stand for, it’s easier to use our values to guide the way we engage and interact with others. Also, if we feel like we are getting off track, we can always take it back to our values and then re-group. After we do this important values work, we turn our attention to routines and rituals as the next step.

Integrate Rituals Into Routines by Starting With The “Why”

Routines are what we repeatedly do. In most professions, we have daily routines for how we organize our day, plan a project, network with consumers of our work, and so on. A routine builds structure in our work as opposed to living with chaos and disorder. When we are experiencing a crisis, routines are important. If we have existing routines, it’s good to continue to follow them. If not, it’s important to build routines to formalize a structure. By doing so, we reduce people’s anxiety and build confidence that we can get through the crisis.

Routines keep us grounded but they don’t necessarily help us get through the day with purpose and meaning. We may find ourselves moving from one task to the other with little meaning attached to the work we are doing. In a crisis, we may be doing any given task more often than during our regular workday. We have passion for our work, yet the crisis is so overwhelming that we become tired and feel hopeless. With the right communication approach by executive leaders, employees gain a higher level of purpose during a crisis.


The structure behind routines comforts us. The attitude guiding rituals energizes us. Communication includes a balance of routine and ritual.


Rituals are repeated behaviors just like routines. Rituals are typically part of our routines. Rituals however, instill deeper meaning beyond a sequence of actions and are deeply personal. Rituals represent the attitude behind the routine.

When we are leading others through a crisis, we reinforce structure (tasks) to reduce anxiety and focus on rituals to communicate meaning behind the tasks. People need to know more than ever that what they are doing has purpose and is worthwhile in addressing the crisis. The structure behind routines comforts us. The attitude guiding rituals energizes us. Communication includes a balance of routine and ritual.

One way to ensure we integrate rituals into our routines is by starting every communication with the “why.” We communicate by first asking, why should anyone care about what I am saying? People care when they see that the message has a direct relationship to how they feel and what they are experiencing. It’s less about what senior leaders want to say, but more about what they decide to say to help others manage their work in meaningful ways.

Communication Routines, Rituals and Tools

One of the most important things to remember is that communication is all about people. We can’t achieve the results we desire without people doing the right work for the right reasons. During a crisis it’s easy to forget about our people because we’re so focused on the jobs needing attention to move us out of a crisis. The only way we will shift from the current state to a better one is when our people are working side-by-side with us, doing so with energy and meaning, and feeling cared for as they make sacrifices in their daily work and in many instances, their personal lives.

We focus on several communication tactics and tools that provide routines for leaders to deploy to reduce anxieties and revitalize the workforce. Remember, the best communication approaches need integration of rituals in our routines. Communicating why we are doing what we are doing connected to what we are doing and how to do it are some of the most important things for leaders to do to manage a crisis.  As the tactics and tools are described, I hope you open your hearts and minds to blend routines and rituals. Why? To give people an inspiring purpose knowing they are making a difference as well as getting people to the other side of a crisis.

Tactics and Tools

Daily Huddles – No More than 20 – 30 Minutes a Day

During a crisis we recommend that the executive leader hosts daily huddles with executive team members. Then, the executive leaders create a process for daily huddles to cascade throughout the organization. The executive leaders host daily huddles with their leaders, and leaders host daily huddles with their leaders, and so on in ways that cascading makes the most sense to the organization. The size and intensity of the direct effect of the crisis will guide how the executive leaders decide who conducts daily huddles. All leaders follow a common agenda structure for daily huddle meetings to create routines and rituals in the organization.

The daily huddle is a short meeting meant to occur every day so that the entire team can be informed and aligned on the work that needs to be done. The purpose of the daily huddle is to increase team productivity, accountability, and optimism. The purpose is not to solve problems during the daily huddle. Problem-solving occurs in another format using appropriate problem-solving tools.


The daily huddle is a short meeting meant to occur every day so that the entire team can be informed and aligned on the work that needs to be done.


Here are several suggestions for holding daily huddles. 

  • When conducting a daily huddle use technology or interactions that allow teams to see each other face-to-face. Also, record, take notes, and follow-up.
  • Keep the daily huddle to no more than 20 to 30 minutes a day.
  • Start with a positive and end with a positive. Spread opportunities for people to share positives.
  • Schedule time for the executive leader to provide important announcements if there are any that day. During the meeting, selected leaders will provide information to these three areas:
    • What’s up in the next 24 hours?
    • What are the results on daily metrics?
    • Where is your team getting stuck? Again, the purpose is not to solve problems with this group but to identify “getting stuck” areas. These areas may need the attention of the senior executive or the senior executive could push the issues to a team to solve. Issues may be simple or complex. The follow-up action depends on the complexity of the problem.

DAILY HUDDLE SAMPLE AGENDA

Item Time
Greetings/Welcome/Roll Call 1 min

Harvest Win

Select one person to contribute something positive

1 min
Announcements 2 min

Reports from Team Leads on Actions for the Day

*Purpose is not to solve problems. Determine people to report out:

  • What’s up in the next 24 hours? (15 seconds per team lead and only relate to key activities, meetings, decisions)
  • How are we doing on daily metrics? (30 seconds per team lead talking about daily metrics)
  • Where are you stuck? (90 seconds per team lead talking about concerns that would keep the team from having a great 24 hours)
10 min
Wrap Up/Follow-Up and End with Something Positive 1 min

Executive Leader Daily Communication Virtual Broadcasts and Recordings – 10 Minutes a Day

Depending on the size of the organization, the Executive Leader may not have direct contact with all employees. For smaller organizations executive leaders may run daily huddles. Therefore, the daily communication may not be as significant in this case.

For larger and layered organizations, executive leader virtual broadcasts are vital. The more severe the crisis the more virtual broadcasts are needed. Daily executive leader virtual broadcasts are helpful when the crisis is affecting the workforce in significant ways. Create the content of the video with a “people first” attitude. We can’t manage the current situation in a productive way without them.

Also, select the time of day to do a virtual broadcast. For some organizations, it may work best to do at the same time each day. For 24-hour organizations, it makes sense to produce some virtual broadcasts during the day, some during the evening, and some on weekends. Regardless of the scheduled time, record the virtual broadcast and send to all employees.

Here are several suggestions when scheduling executive leaders’ virtual broadcasts:


Being authentic depends on what’s behind what we say and do.

How words are spoken has the greatest influence on what people believe.


  • Be Authentic. Authenticity is basic to connecting with another human being. Authenticity is known as believability. Becoming an authentic leader is not necessarily easy, but the concept is simple. When we are authentic, those we lead are more likely to believe us and comply with our requests. It’s difficult to lead others when people don’t see authenticity in our message. Authenticity creates followers. Being authentic depends on what’s behind what we say and do.
  • Tell the Truth and Instill Confidence. People would rather hear the truth that includes bad news rather than work with uncertainty about what’s going on. Apply what Jim Collins calls confronting the brutal facts. He found that the best CEOs realized that productive change begins when they work with people to confront the brutal facts. The best CEOs also maintained an unwavering faith that as an organization we can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties; and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be.
  • Use what we call, Key Words at Key Times. How words are spoken has the greatest influence on what people believe. People see leaders as credible and reliable during a crisis when the message focuses on outcomes, provides good direction, and includes the right words. People want to trust that their leader is taking the right actions to manage the crisis that serves people well – employees and consumers.
  • Recognize people for good work. Whenever we see someone on our team do something well that had a tremendous impact on others and the organization, stop for a minute and highlight it. Say to that person – “Yes, what you did right there, that is excellent.” And, then share the specific examples with others on the executive daily virtual broadcast to harvest wins. People will feel proud and revitalized, even in times when they are experiencing tremendous stress.

SAMPLE VIRTUAL BROADCAST OUTLINE

Item Time
Harvest daily wins by highlighting something people did that had a tremendous impact. 2 min

Present the outcomes for the day and progress that’s been made on outcomes to date.

2 min
Specifically address areas not working as well as needed and actions that are being taken to address these areas. 3 min

Communicate why the employees are important to solving the critical issues identified. Give specific examples.

2 min
Express the confidence you have in the leaders and employees to get the job done.

End with gratitude for the work that people are doing to manage the crisis at hand.

1 min

One-on-One Connections with People

Never underestimate the difference we can make in others’ lives when we truly listen. When people are working and living through a crisis, they are fearful for themselves and others. Intentionally connecting with people in one-on-one situations shows that we are genuinely concerned for others and care for their well-being. It’s more important than ever that we as leaders show this care and concern to our employees.

Here are several suggestions for making one-on-one connections.

When we are connecting with employees, it’s important to use a method that allows us to see each other so that we can have a two-way interactive conversation. We can interact face-to-face using virtual technologies, such as Zoom, Skype, and so on.  Let’s stay away from email or text when we make these one-on-one connections.  As we engage with each other consider the following suggestions.


When people are working and living through a crisis, they are fearful for themselves and others. Intentionally connecting with people in one-on-one situations shows that we are genuinely concerned for others and care for their well-being. 


  • Let employees know we recognize the work situation is different and that leaders are supportive of helping employees make the needed adjustments. Also, let them know that we need to count on them to help work on the crisis at hand.
  • Apply a tactic called leader rounding. It’s where leaders connect with their direct reports on an individual level. By doing so, we:
    • Express concern for employees and their families.
    • Let them know that we recognize work is different than it’s been for our team.
    • Reassure them that we are better working together as a team.
  • Pay ridiculous attention to what employees are telling us. Our job as leaders is to probe for deeper understanding and give individuals an opportunity to talk through areas that they are proud of and anxieties they feel. Respond directly to what they are telling us.

Here’s the sample leader rounding process using these suggestions:

We recommend that executive leaders require other organizational leaders to round with their direct reports, especially the employees who are on the front line of the crisis. It’s also important for senior leaders to round on the leaders of frontline employees. There are many situations that take our time when we are in a crisis. It’s easy to justify that we are too busy to make personal connections with our employees. Let’s remember we can’t manage the crisis well without people being at their best. Taking care of them is one of our highest priorities. It’s also the right thing to do.

When connecting with our direct reports, we ask: 1) how they are doing, 2) what is working, 3) what they are afraid of, 4) what we can do to help, 5) if someone has been especially helpful to them.

We end with expressing our gratitude for them being part of our team.

After our rounding connection, we follow-up using a 3-2-1 Reflection Tool. For area 3 – record areas that are working well and capture wins to share with others. For area 2 – record actions to follow-up on when you hear barriers that are getting in the way.  For area 1 – complete action steps that include how to solve issues and how to recognize people. Then, take action!

3-2-1 REFLECTION TOOL

Reflection
Working Well

3

What’s working well? Wins to share with others?
Follow-up

2

Actions to follow up on based on barriers that are getting in the way
Action Steps

1

Action steps including how to solve issues and how to recognize people

Key Words at Key Times

When we communicate a message to others, we are doing so to achieve a particular outcome. Therefore, as we determine how to create our message, we first determine the outcome we are trying to achieve. Also, we write our message understanding that people are more likely to listen to the message when they see how it relates to them and what they do. Finally, the words we choose in our message influence whether people act on what we relay in our message. We want to choose the right words to achieve the desired results.  Doing so is more important than ever during a crisis. In some instances, it’s the difference between life and death.

Suggestions for using key words at key times to communicate:

  • Always start with “why” for any action we are asking others to do. Sometimes in a crisis we need to give direct orders and actions.  Starting with “why” helps people understand the relevance of the action we are asking them to do. We expect people to do what we tell them to do to manage a crisis.  We also owe people an approach that is respectable and caring.


EXAMPLE

“It’s important for all of us to care about each other and our customers. As the leader of this team, I am concerned about our team receiving timely information and having the resources to do our jobs. I want to make sure you have the information you need and an opportunity to stay connected to your colleagues.  That’s why it is important that we have 100% of team members attend the Daily Huddle meeting. Thank you for your participation with making our team strong during this difficult time.”


  • Let teams know working as a team will help manage the crisis. Use terms like collectively and together when we talk about actions we are taking.
  • Be specific about expectations and model them.
  • Reframe from blaming others for the crisis. Rather, focus on what we are doing to solve issues to prevail.
  • Transfer the way we provide directions to others. Instead of using words like “you need to” or “you should do”, try this approach:
    • When we look at the data, it informs us about what’s best to do. Here’s what it says and here’s how we can be responsive.
    • When our leaders made their rounds with you, we heard x. Therefore, we are taking this action to address x.
    • When I heard the issues you were facing, it made me think of a time when something like that happened to me. Here’s what I did that seemed to work. What do you think? Could something like that work for you?
    • At times we are asking everyone to be responsive by a stated time. We’ve noticed that we don’t have 100% compliance and the level of compliance varies across departments. We need the required action to occur on time so that we can make the best decisions for the team.  If there are reasons why you are unable to comply with a request on time, would you let your supervisor know why. We expect 100% compliance.
    • I’ve noticed you are struggling with x. When we were not in crisis, how did you handle situations like this? What worked for you then? Do you think that may work for you now?
    • I hear your concerns. How do you think the issues can be resolved? If they say they don’t know, ask this question. If you did know, what would you do?  And most of the time people will answer the question.

Summary

The most important part of communicating is choosing the right words that are thoughtful, specific, and honest. We do so when we lead daily huddles, produce a daily virtual broadcast, and have one-on-one conversations with others. We reviewed three tactics and tools that provide executive leaders with communication approaches that are simple yet have a tremendous impact on keeping people focused and engaged to work through a crisis. The tactics and tools become our daily routines. Our attitudes behind the message make a routine a ritual. When we use these tactics and tools in the most genuine way with our employees, we’ll make our organizations even stronger during and on the other side of a crisis.

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