7 Ways to communicate and lead through crisis

How do we lead during a crisis of unprecedented uncertainty and shifting realities? It’s a good question. My business is helping organizations plan for worst-case scenarios. While COVID-19 presents new territory for all of us, the basics of crisis management and communications apply now more than ever.

Whether you’re leading a company or team involved in essential services, or like me, an entrepreneur with concerned clients facing new challenges they hadn’t anticipated, it’s time to adapt quickly and decisively. Here are the guiding principles I follow and am sharing with those asking for help.

Trust your values: Do our actions and words reflect our stated values? This is the question leaders must continually ask themselves during a crisis. Instincts will betray you during a crisis when the fight or flight response kicks in and urges you to act in ways inconsistent with your values, like staying silent, or delaying difficult decisions. Trust your values. Let them guide your crisis response.

Focus on trust: Now is the time to build trust with customers and employees. Be generous with resources, information, guidance, and support. Looking back on this crisis, how will your stakeholders view your actions ? How will it make them feel about doing business with you again, or coming to work for you? Let trust, not sales, be the why.

Be decisive, not perfect: Effective leaders are used to having time to gather input and data to make smart decisions, but in many crises and especially with COVID-19, the information is fluid. You’re required to make decisions with the best information available right now and learn to flex and adapt through the chaos. Optimize as you go. Silence and inaction are toxic in crisis.

Offer candid reassurance: You don’t have all the answers, and no one expects you to. You can be forthright about the challenges you’re facing. If a mistake is made, own it and be transparent about how you’re evolving plans to meet today’s challenges. It can feel like a tightrope walk, but you must balance that openness with confidence. Nothing is more essential than your ability to provide reassurance and comfort that your organization is equipped to weather the storm.

Communicate: In the ebb and flow of this global pandemic, no one trusts what they read today is true tomorrow. If you go dark on communication, people will fill the vacuum with misinformation, rumors, and competing sets of “facts.” Keep talking. Be present. Be visible. Fill your channels with the situation as you know it today. In this environment, it may not be possible to be “on the ground” in the crisis. Ask yourself how you can show up in meaningful ways that show your team you’re with them.

Listen and respond to the troops: The chaos of crisis creates new leaders – either individuals willing to take charge or groups identifying smart solutions to the real-time problems they’re seeing. You must create pathways to identify and respond appropriately to the wisdom emerging from the bottom up. They’re your best bellwether for what’s working and what needs fresh attention.

In more than 20 years advising businesses on how to plan for and weather crises, I’ve learned much of the common wisdom on leading through crisis comes down to courage and empathy. Be a courageous leader and care deeply about people. You can’t go wrong.