Key skills required for effective communication during Covid-19

The 3 key components to good communication are the message, the method and the messenger; most organisations focus on the first two and give little thought to the third by automatically defaulting to the person at the top of the organisation.

Over the years, across a variety of sectors, in a variety of situations including closures, acquisitions, administration, bird flu and a couple of military coups;  I’ve been exposed to good communication, poor communication, sensitive communication and damaging communication – which was often down to the individual skills of the communicator than the content of the message, because the way you communicate is just as critical as having the right message.

The coronavirus pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on business leaders and their people. The sequence of events unfolding with overwhelming speed is resulting in a high degree of uncertainty, anxiety and in some cases fear. The first peak is believed to have passed (tbc) and the lockdown extended for a further 3 weeks; but we don’t know how many lockdowns or peaks we may have to endure to defeat this terrible virus. We could still be social distancing in June and then again in the Autumn, we just don’t know.  The humanitarian toll in cases and deaths, closures and restrictions, salaries and shortages has unsettled many emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.

In reality, we are dealing with two contagions; C19 and the emotions it generates – many of which are negative and every bit as contagious as the virus.

The majority of businesses I spoke to prior to the recent social distancing extension, had ticked all the functional boxes: they’d sent their HR letters, set up their WhatsApp groups, purchased zoom, circulated team brief schedules and delivered their maiden address to the staff. At the outset of a crisis we often see leaders hitting the wrong notes, making Churchillian speeches, overconfident statements and upbeat commitments to rally the “troops” and allay any fears, before the full facts are known – which can undermine their credibility as things unfold.

However, as we enter phase two (and future phases), communications will need to be more sensitive and less functional, as the mood of their staff changes.

The lack of testing and shortage of front line PPE have added to the general sense of a “lack of control” over what’s happening, which has added to personal frustrations and negative emotions (despite the media’s good news broadcasts) on everything from finances, to travel bans, food queues, closed high streets, vulnerable parents, home schooling and not being able to visit family and friends – all of which will increasing impact their staff emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.

A pre coronavirus survey by McKinsey shared specific examples of how people round the world have tended to cope in a crisis, in these 4 areas of their lives.

  • Emotional – A Mexican company vice president chooses to recharge by reaching out to friends regularly to send thanks and love. A Swedish entrepreneur reviews an e-mail folder where she keeps compliments, thank-you notes, and warm greetings.
  • Physical – A Brazilian executive walks up a few flights of stairs quickly—more flights if she is agitated or upset—and then she slowly walks down, giving herself the time to reflect and come back to center. An Italian senior manager has an afternoon coffee, walking to the lobby café instead of the coffee stand on his own floor.
  • Mental – When a US CEO needs to recharge his energy levels, he consciously seeks out conversations with employees, so he can learn something new.
  • Spiritual – A technology executive turns her chair to look out the window, meditating on nature and life in the form of the oak tree that fills her view. A UK Christian Director who talks to God throughout the day.

Responses will differ from one person to another, and what could be very emotional for one person may not be so for another, so whilst it’s all relative, try to remember that it’s very real for the individual going through them. So, take time to see how your staff are being affected in particular ways, pay careful attention to how people are struggling and take appropriate actions to support them. One helpful tool to help you recognise where your staff are, is the Kubler- Ross change curve which tracks the different phases people move through when coping with change, and signals what you need to do to get each individual along and back up the other side of the curve.

Learn from others – Jeff Bezos’ open coronavirus letter to his Amazon staff uses a simple but effective 5 step structure.

  1. Be truthful
  2. Express Gratitude
  3. Manage Expectations
  4. Address the Obvious
  5. Show your commitment

Working from home during the coronavirus has also raised more than a few challenges, aside from the home schooling, lack of desk space, and 24/7 family life; I’ve noticed that people want to talk more before getting round to the work in hand, which has challenged me to change my own approach. I have now started replying to texts and certain emails by calling people back, because I can and it is good to talk … PS you have been warned 🙂

But many of your employees may not be used to working from home and all of them are likely to have some concerns about their jobs, salary, and the company’s future; as well as what’s going on in their lives. Adapting your style to increase the intimacy of communications that replace the normal workplace face-to-face conversations will go a long way to offer them clarity and reassurance, as well as keeping them engaged with you, their work, and the company.

And finally 5 more tips to finish with:

  1. Promote psychological SAFETY so people can openly discuss ideas, questions, and concerns without fear of repercussions. This allows the network of teams to make sense of the situation, and how to handle it through healthy debate.
  2. Keeping the TONE of your communications in-line with your culture, values and employee value proposition will give a sense of authenticity and build a feeling of safety and trust.
  3. Continually collect INFORMATION as the crisis unfolds and identify the potential impact on your people within your organisation – then update and consider its value communicating.
  4. Promote COMMUNITY involvement – helping others is a great way  to improve well-being and reduce stress, and as we’ve witnessed in a crisis, people look for ways to contribute. It’s important to rebuild a common social identity and a sense of belonging based on shared values, norms, and habits.
  5. Become more aware of YOURSELF – develop the ability to recognise your emotions, and the warning flags. Stay calm don’t allow them to dictate your mood and behaviour, and regardless of what’s going on around you, choose to focus on what you can influence and ignore the other stuff – And if you can manage to do all that you’ll be in a great position to lead.

  “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did,

but people will never forget how you made them feel”

Maya Angelo

Since 2013 I have been helping ambitious SMEs with their Strategic and Leadership challenges.

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Posted in communication, Company Culture, Engagement, leadership, Skill Sets
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