3 Communication Strategies for Leaders in Uncertain Times

Published August 24, 2020

Covid-19, the economic fallout and the simmering social unrest now at a boiling point, have created the perfect storm for leaders around the world. We don’t have to wait for the next edition of the Harvard Business Review to read a leadership case study–we are all living one for the ages. As a practitioner and student of leadership, I have been fascinated by the different responses to this crisis.

What do the best leaders do in a crisis?

The complexity and fluidity of our current situation combined with the uniqueness of individual circumstances render formulaic responses to the crisis absurd. However, one of the actions leaders can take that will have a disproportionate impact on how their team and organization will respond to the situation hinges on how effectively they communicate. During times of crisis, the way leaders communicate has an out-sized impact on the confidence and motivation of their teams.

Here are a few ideas for your self-evaluation and encouragement.

 

1) Clarity, not certainty, is the smart choice.

Most people crave certainty, but they will settle for clarity. I was first introduced to this concept more than a decade ago by Andy Stanley and it has served me well. The power of clarity has proven itself over and over again in crisis and in times of relative stability. The truth is, leaders can rarely provide certainty–we have a vision, or dream or five-year strategic plan but so much is out of our control. Those who have overstepped the bounds of their control and made promises infused with certainty often find themselves having to rebuild credibility.

So, what does clarity look like? It may be a leader who says: “Here are the principles we are going to use to make decisions during these uncertain times.” Or, “During this time, we are going to constantly go back to our purpose, vision, and values to guide our decisions.” Or, “Based on what we know today, we are going to do this or that–as we get new information, we will adjust.” Leaders who attempt to provide certainty, especially in these days, are setting themselves and those they lead up for a fall.

 

2) Multiple approaches increase your odds of success.

A mistake I’ve attempted to avoid throughout my career is a strong and natural tendency for leaders to communicate only in their preferred style and medium. However, the research on this is clear, different people receive and process information differently.

Therefore, if we want to reach everyone with our message(s), we need to use multiple forms of communication. Here are a few examples I’ve observed over the last few months:

  • Video messaging
  • Virtual Town Hall Meetings with Q & A
  • Formal listening sessions
  • Instagram and other social platforms
  • Written communications of various forms–including email and newsletters
  • Acts of kindness/service
  • Images of front-line workers and protesters
  • Facts and figures (some organizations are even sharing the financials with their team members)
  • Stories of struggle and triumph
  • Music to inspire and encourage

Leaders who choose to use a single form or medium to communicate critical messages will fail to connect with large numbers of their desired audience.

If you want to learn more about this strategy for more effective communication, you can check out Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, or for a less academic translation of the same concept, 7 Kinds of Smart by Thomas Armstrong.

 

3) Strategic repetition is your friend.

Have you ever noticed how single-minded many of the best leaders appear to be?

Think of a leader you know who you can predict with high certainty what he or she is going to talk about given the slightest opportunity. Maybe it is vision, or mission, or values or key strategies; regardless of their message, these leaders seem to be stuck on repeat. There’s a reason–they know constancy and repetition are required to break through the clutter of the world with their critical message.

Do you have a key message you want people to embrace during these unprecedented times? I know of one leadership team that began the Covid era exhorting their entire organization with the idea: We will emerge stronger.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this should be your mantra. The reason I mention it here is over the last several months, leaders in this organization have reiterated that sentiment countless times–so much so, people not only believe it, they are working to make it so!

Key messages, repeated consistently, have a much better shot at taking root in the hearts and minds of people. Then, combine strategic, repetitive messages with multiple formats and you can have significant influence on the narrative within your organization–both now and for years to come.

 

What’s next?

As of today, we are several months into a time in our history that will be remembered for generations. Leaders around the globe are faced with a tidal wave of questions: When can we return to a new normal? What is the new vision? What are the new strategies? What will our financial future look like? What’s next? The answers to many of these questions will likely remain elusive for the foreseeable future.

Here’s what we do know: leaders who communicate effectively with clarity, integrity, passion, and empathy, using as many forms as possible, will have the greatest likelihood of thriving in the new normal…whenever we get there.

About the Author
Mark Miller

Mark Miller

Vice President of High-Performance Leadership

Chick-fil-A

Mark Miller is a business leader, international best-selling author and storyteller. He currently serves as Vice President of High-Performance Leadership at Chick-fil-A, Inc. As an author, he now has over one million books in print including The Heart of Leadership, Chess Not Checkers , and his latest, Win Every Day, to be released in March 2020. Over the years, Mark has spoken to countless groups around the world—his message is consistent with his calling: He wants to encourage and equip leaders to change their world. Learn more at TMarkMiller.com

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