how leaders can communicate with transparency during a crisis.

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a webinar about coaching techniques to engage employees virtually. A friend in the organizational development (OD) community reached out to me and asked a tough question, one I couldn’t readily answer. She said that as an OD leader, she believes in being truthful and transparent with employees, but as a leader in her organization, she struggles with how truthful to be. She had a good point and I imagine many in the HR, L&D and OD communities struggle with the same questions.

Transparency has been the rallying cry of a generation of leaders. Open office plans were created so we could be more transparent with the work we were doing and make communication more efficient. Following the Enron scandal of the early 2000s, companies wanted to set up cultures where people would be accountable to honest, ethical behavior – and transparency was adopted as the value that would make this happen. We all nod our heads when someone says that sunlight can be the best disinfectant. Glassdoor has shown us what it’s ’really’ like to work somewhere. Scrum methodology has been adopted to bring technology project planning into mutual team view. Even in the retail world, buyers and sellers transparently rate each other based on their mutual experiences through apps like Uber, Airbnb and eBay.

continue building on the trust you’ve established

While the COVID-19 crisis has leaders scrambling for the nearest crystal ball to try to make sense of the world, employees are hungry for their leaders’ perspective on what will happen next. PR agency, Edelman, has created what they’ve termed their Trust Barometer. In 2019, ’my employer’ emerged as the most trusted institution for employees, topping governments, traditional media and social media. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, people continue to turn to their employers as a source of information, second only to health resources like doctors, the World Health Organization and governmental health authorities. As one company put it, they feel they have a moral obligation to be truthful, clear and transparent with their employees.

How can you be transparent, especially when so little is certain? In speaking with our customers in the HR community, we’ve compiled a few ideas.

tell people what you know and don’t know

And, tell them often. Leaders commonly make the mistake of waiting until more is known before planning communications to employees. This traditional linear and downward cascade approach may have worked when information flowed in contained channels, but today it can bubble up from anywhere and travel in many directions simultaneously, making it difficult to keep bad news from your employees. They know from their colleagues how the company is doing. Communicating what you know and don’t know will keep employees tuned to your channel and increase the chances they’ll tune out the rumor mill. Waiting until you know everything will likely leave you in a situation where people will have picked up on clues and drawn conclusions that may be completely false.

be direct with compassion

Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s co-founder, recently announced very difficult news to his organization – that close to 25% of employees would be laid off. His written memo to employees has circulated among HR professionals as an excellent example of how to communicate terrible news with both head and heart. In the memo, he clearly stated the things Airbnb doesn’t know and the business decisions that had to follow:

’We don’t know exactly when travel will return.’ 

’When travel does return, it will look different.’ 

Chesky cited these unknowns as the reason behind the decision and explained the company’s vision for a ’more focused’ business model in the future. In his closing paragraph, he conveyed absolute transparency with true compassion, telling employees who are leaving, ’I am truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.’

The level of vulnerability and transparency Chesky showed is indicative of his leadership style. He has been known to convey his emotions through his employee communications. This authentic style is likely one reason that he earned a 92% approval rating on Glassdoor.

Related content: leading through crisis – 8 tips for navigating turbulent times.

recognize what is positive and impactful versus what is demotivating

One customer we spoke to told us this was one thing his company was consciously striving to do in communications with staff. He has been inspired by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, one that balances communication of possible scenarios and truthfulness without creating fear. In his daily briefings, Cuomo uses common language, conveying information, explaining why it has changed from the previous day and leaving supposition or interpretation to other experts. This has made him a bipartisan example of thorough communication during a crisis.

In the corporate world, it can be difficult to know what will and won’t set off  human emotions in your workforce. What motivates a risk-tolerant person might terrify a change-averse employee. However, HR leaders I know have excellent radar when it comes to their cultures and what will be seen and felt by the employee population as a whole. Many companies also have data from pulse surveys to support their sentiments. Now is an important time for HR to speak up and represent the impact of messaging on employees in the current environment.

modify your messaging and your tone as information changes

One company we know was one of the first to issue work-from-home orders, days before states closed down non-essential workplaces. This company continues to get a weekly communication from the global CEO. The first few weeks were about the health and safety of employees. Over time, this message has morphed to cover other important issues like the mental health of quarantined employees, changes in business models and processes, and how the company is giving back to the community. The CEO’s message is supplemented by videos featuring various business leaders, which increases the sense among employees that ‘we’re all in this together.’

the new world of work will require authenticity and trust

Much of the world is beginning the slow task of reopening businesses and getting people back to work. As we think about the months ahead, transparency is one of the fastest ways to create trust among your employees. In a recent webinar, Randstad RiseSmart executive coach Katie Smith discussed how creating transparency now can build trust. She outlined five areas of focus where leaders can build trust while working with employees virtually: communication, clarification, connection and consistency. By following a few of these simple leadership habits, leaders are more likely to keep their teams engaged during the disruption that will happen as we redefine our new workplaces.

Related content: coaching techniques and energizing your team through virtual leadership (webinar).

Whatever level of transparency your company decides to adopt, recognize that emotions are high as quarantine and return-to-work plans disrupt our work lives and financial stability. As one customer explained, right now, ‘Everything we say to our employees has greater consequences.’ Being thoughtful in your approach is important, and during these times, being vulnerable and timely may be even more important. There are seasons to think, review and perfect. Now is not one of those times. Be perfect enough. And be as transparent as you can possibly be. Your employees will remember.

jeanne schad.

talent solutions and strategy practice leader

27 May 2020

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