Coaching Minute
Issue#32: 6 Tips for Communicating in Times of Uncertainty

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6 Tips for Communicating in Times of Uncertainty

 
 
Relevant Emotional Competencies: Leadership, Change Catalyst, Adaptability, Empathy, Social Awareness, Emotional Awareness, Self-Confidence, Drive to Achieve, Initiative, and Trustworthiness. [“Working with Emotional Intelligence” – Daniel Goleman (Bantam, 1998)]
 
One of the most important things a leader must do in times of uncertainty is to communicate. For many, uncertainty about the future increases fear. Silence from leadership can be deafening and only breeds suspicion. Fear and suspicion – not the sort of fuel you want to have drive your team’s actions during such times.
 
Low EQ managers have a tendency during such times to focus on processes and tasks that need done to get the team out of uncertainty. They work on plans, even get excited about them and all throughout this period, fail to realise that their lack of communication could be causing staff to lose the plot. Working with a team recently had just undergone a significant organisational re-sizing exercise, I asked one of the managers “on a scale of 1 to 10, what is the level of your team’s morale?” I was staggered by her response – “That’s a great question. Not something I’ve ever thought to ask. Been too busy to think about that”. Guess what her team’s morale is like? How productive do you think they are?
 
Another reason I often hear from managers who fail to communicate effectively during such times is that they themselves are uncertain about the future. So the rumour mills run hot, staff are distracted, don't feel their managers care or are in tune with what’s truly going on, morale declines, attrition rises. Invariably, customers and other stakeholders sense this too and this affects their decisions. The uncertainty is exacerbated. Sadly, what the team fears most eventuates.
 
High EQ managers, on the other hand, have a pulse on the team’s emotions. And they know their role during times of uncertainty is to create certainty. And they do this through effective and timely communications.
 
 
Here are six tips for communicating to create assurance:
 
 
1.  Establish a dialogue early and follow up frequently. Open-ness and honesty fosters trust. Say “at this stage, we don't know what the future holds, but we are working with urgency on getting to clarity on this and will keep you informed every step of the way.” 
 
Give your team clear avenues of dialogue to allow them to air their grievances and have personal questions asked by people who can communicate based on fact rather than hear-say e.g. establish a blog, appoint change champions empowered to address these concerns or simply have an open-door policy for your staff. 
 
By doing this, what your team gets is that their leader understands, empathizes and cares. That’s reassuring. That creates certainty. 
 
 
2.  If you aren’t clear about the future or don't have yet have a concrete plan, communicate your plan for the plan. Don't wait for clarity. It could be too late. Heed the words of Churchill - “when the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber”. If I’m caught in traffic and potentially late for an appointment, even if I don’t know what time I will eventually get there, my client would much appreciate an early call that goes “John, my sincere apologies but with the way the traffic looks, I am possibly going to run late. At this stage, I’m not able to gauge what time I’ll be arriving but we’re doing our level best to get there as soon as we can. As soon as the picture is clearer, I will give you another call. Thank you for your understanding”.
 
Remember, caring and communicating is important. Much more important is whether your staff feel cared for and what they hear. What you do or do not say  “speaks” to them. Be sensitive and empathise with what they might be hearing or interpreting and how this makes them feel.
 
 
3. Do this face-to-face either through town hall, coffee sessions or take a few minutes from staff meetings to give your team an update. The mistake most leaders make is to rely solely on emailed or written communication during times of uncertainty. As much as 93% of communication is non-verbal. It’s not just what you say - how you say it determines how effective your communication is. Your team draws confidence from your presence, sincerity and energy. Project compassion and yet confidence and optimism through your posture, gestures and eye contact with your team. 
 
 
4. Direct your team’s focus on things they have total control over! You have little control over the economy, what your competitors do, what senior stakeholders decide, the weather, etc.  Fretting over things you have no control over is counter-productive. Instead, direct your team’s energies on the opportunities presented by the situation and things they totally have control over. Doing their best with the job at hand and ensuring success will often give the team the best chance to realise the most positive result. Activities that “sharpen the saw” like training, team building, undertaking continuous improvement projects or just taking time out to reflect are all constructive. “It’s not what happens, it’s what you do with what happens that determines where you end up!”
 
 
5. Share stories, examples and anecdotes of successes arising from previous occasions of uncertainty. All of us have them. Think of an experience or time in the past where there has been tremendous uncertainty. Think of how you felt at the time. Reflect on how you’ve become stronger, more positive or simply just survived through that experience. Draw strength from such experiences.
 
Returning from my business trip to Shanghai last week, I was moved by the positive energy of the people there. 20 years ago, Shanghai was but a city with third world infrastructure, its economy shackled by the country’s closed-door policies. Today, it's a gleaming metropolis whose people by and large enjoy significantly higher standards of living. Speaking to the taxi drivers there, I could not but admire the sense of pride they had in what they’d helped achieve. For them, the “certainty” of their previous history represented mediocrity. The uncertainties brought about by two decades of breakneck growth on the other hand has resulted in tremendous prosperity and opportunity. Their “bring it on” energy was palpable. They draw strength from the belief that the worst that could happen was that things would revert to where they had been in the past and that they had survived through those years anyhow! 
 
 
6. Communicate your optimistic vision of the future and express your faith in your team to get there. Teams draw certainty from leaders who have clarity of direction and who are confident in the team’s ability and potential to get there. Paint a vivid picture of what the future potentially holds and what it means for each individual and stakeholder– for the organisation, your customers and staff.
 
 
In summary, in times of uncertainty, create assurance through regular and effective dialogue with your team. Be open and honest about what you know to be real and generate optimism and faith in the future and through your belief in your team’s potential.
 
 
With you in growth and service,
 
Dominic Siow

 

 

 

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