Actions to take: When crisis hits, do more communicating, not less. Do not allow your employees to set the tone of your communication relationship—the impulse will be to avoid conversation. Instead, redouble your efforts to check in frequently and keep them updated. When changes occur, stick to Announce Before you Implement, though likely at an accelerated pace.
In challenging times, people tend to clam up. We are a self-preserving bunch. We want to protect ourselves from danger. That instinct can go unnoticed when times are good, but it becomes abundantly obvious when times are tough. Speaking your mind is a vulnerable thing to do. When there is a crisis, whether it is a global pandemic, recession, or something negatively impacting your particular place of work, your staff will avoid putting themselves out there. That means they will be a lot less vocal about their thoughts, concerns, and good ideas for how to pull through.
When things are tough, you need just the opposite. We need clever ideas from staff. We need to hear concerns about aspects of the plan we hadn't considered. We need to know how well people are managing their emotions and when they need a break. Even though we know this, we don’t act like it. Our team is apt to do less communicating. When everything feels up in the air, people will be giving off the signal, “Leave me alone with my thoughts.” There is social pressure to give people what they want. It is especially present when times are tough. With everything going on, the least we can do is let them be, right?
We must overcome that social pressure. The fact is, that is not what people really want. More than anything, people in crisis want to reduce uncertainty. When times are truly challenging, you will hear things like, “I don’t even care what will happen next, I just want to know.” Leaving people to stew in their thoughts is the last thing you need. Hopefully, this thought appeals to both the people-oriented readers and the business-minded. It is both good for the person and good for the organization to stop employees from endless rumination.
We’ve established that people will start pulling back. Instead of letting them set the communication lead, you must set it. Things aren’t normal, and there is likely to be a new standard of communication. It could swing one way (less talking, drop our usual routine of one-on-ones, put our heads down) or the other (more communicating, getting even more candid about our concerns, touching base more frequently to get questions out in the open).
You have the opportunity to set the new normal. Stop by your employees’ desks daily. If you are virtual, set up a daily phone call to say good morning and see what is on their minds. Update them on whatever you’ve learned in the past 24 hours. Update them even if you have no new information: “You know that thing we were talking about 2 days ago? I haven’t heard back yet from my boss, but I’m going to keep pinging her about it until we know what’s up.” Have some questions for them. Try to draw out their worries. Get a sense for how secure or insecure they are feeling. It will change day-by-day and week-by-week. You need to know at any given moment where each of your staff stand. That way, you have a sense of how they are going to react when the next change comes, and it inevitably will.
Speaking of changes, how is managing change different during a crisis? The answer: it is the same, just faster. In the Announce Before you Implement post, we outlined how people react to change and the best process for making change as smooth as possible. All of that still applies. It’s just that now, everyone is on their last nerve and you have less time to work through thoughts and feelings. Do the same ABI process to the extent that you can:
- Announce the change before it happens
- Get opinions on the change
- Respond to those opinions
- And finally, go live with the change
In a crisis, there are times when you will have to do it all in a single day. It might look like this:
- 8:00 am email, “At 10:30, let’s discuss the following. I want to hear your thoughts on this. [provide details of the change].”
- Have that 10:30 meeting. Ask the team how they would execute the change. Get concerns out in the open. You may be able to respond here, but it usually more effective to acknowledge and note concerns for future follow up.
- In the afternoon, do a 2nd email (good enough) or meeting (better). To prepare, think on the concerns your team brought up in the morning. Figure out how you will address them. If they are things you can’t address, follow up with your boss or make plans to. If you know your boss won’t get back to you in time, make plans for a work-around or interim solution.
- Go live with the change.
I recommend doing this even if the change already happened. You might find out on Tuesday that “effective Monday, we were supposed to switch to X method.” Fine. Not ideal, but fine. Still take the time to go through the ABI process. Even if the time between step 1 and step 2 is 30 minutes, give your team that 30 minutes to think about the change. Pick a “go live” time for your team, even if it’s just a few hours later. (Yes, I am telling you to be a little delinquent here. You’re a manager, and that means you get to pick what you’re in trouble for. I’d rather be in trouble for being a few hours late than for being ineffective.) In addition, address the elephant in the room: we have technically been doing it wrong based on this new communication. Make it equally clear that, in your eyes, the team is not at fault.
If you follow this process with confidence, your employees with see you as a bastion of stability. They will see that it is really not so complicated to swim with the changing tide (or whatever metaphor you prefer).
This is, of course, not meant to be a comprehensive plan to managing during stressful change. It is a quick reminder for what needs to be most present in your mind during times of upheaval.
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