See the crisis through your employees’ eyes

In a storm of uncertainty, leaders must communicate with empathy and understanding.

April 3, 2020

Imagine you’re the captain of a ship caught in the middle of a ferocious Atlantic hurricane. Protecting the lives of the entire crew is your top priority. As the wind howls and giant waves crash against the bow, tension and fear grip you personally — but you can’t show it. Conditions change minute to minute, and there is no telling when the storm will break.

The metaphor rings true for those trying to lead their organizations during the coronavirus pandemic, a crisis of epic proportions.

Management skill, wisdom, preparation and experience will be key as you struggle to keep the virus from sinking your entire organization. Timing and luck will also play roles. But ultimately, surviving any crisis depends on holding the “crew” together under supremely challenging conditions.

How can that happen with employees separated and “sheltering in place,” agitated and fearing for their future?

Start by taking on their perspective – stepping off the bridge and onto the deck, so to speak. What do they see? What are their fears? Do they feel useful, vulnerable, or expendable? What would I want to know in their place?

Seeing the situation through another’s eyes springs from the Crisis Communications 101 lesson about speaking to the public’s interest first and foremost. Failure to do so can make the leader and organization seem uncaring and self-serving, and prove fatal to credibility and brand.

When it comes to employees, lack of empathy and understanding can kill morale – and with it, your organization’s chances for making it through the COVID-19 storm. Your internal communications strategy must be designed to keeping everyone unified, engaged and motivated. Here are some piers to hold fast to:

  • Stability – Convene senior managers daily to receive status reports, share information and plan. Send a simple email with high-level news daily to all personnel. In addition to delivering operational benefits, these efforts can help build senses of comradery, stability and confidence that will radiate throughout the organization. Most importantly as managers, use consistent messaging and speak with one voice to build trust and mitigate rumors.
  • Routine – Where practical, maintain meeting and call schedules and work protocols. Familiar processes can help reassure and motivate.
  • Vision – Demonstrate that management is not only aggressively on top of daily affairs, but also planning for whatever may be over the horizon. Encourage personnel to provide creative suggestions for enhancing operations, growing business and strengthening your brand during the crisis.
  • Candor – Be forthright about what you’re up against. Share updates about developments related to ongoing business: contracts that have changed, clients that have gone away, projects that have been suspended. Lay out expectations that are key to ongoing sustainability, such as profitability or business development goals, and report on progress. Don’t worry; your employees can handle the truth.
  • Humanity – Build on a sense of community. Open every conversation by checking in on how everyone is doing. Report on personnel or clients who have contracted or been exposed to the virus. Remind team members about benefits and other resources that are available to them, such as employee assistance programs and relief funds. Encourage mutual support, pitching in on work and sharing personal stories to help buoy spirits. Use videoconferencing whenever possible; people simply enjoy seeing each other.

Now more than ever, your greatest asset is your crew. Keeping employees informed, motivated and together will help the organization stay on course toward calmer seas ahead.

Chernoff Newman has deep category experience in agriculture, food and beverage, education and workforce development, energy, economic development, financial/insurance, healthcare and infrastructure. We design integrated marketing and strategic communications that are impactful, thought-provoking and influential. We marry ingenuity with business know-how to influence beliefs and behaviors for brands, companies and their many stakeholders. We influence attitude and inclination. We influence opinion and outcomes. And when needed, we also influence to quell contention.