- Talking to teams during uncertain times may be one of the most difficult communication challenges may managers will face.
- Teams look to leadership for reassurance, so you need to ensure adequate support for yourself so that you can support others.
- Paint a picture of the future that teams can rally around, but avoid over-promising.
- Be consistent, and remind your team that you are there to support them when they need it.
Difficult conversations are daunting. Difficult conversations during times of profound uncertainty are perhaps the greatest challenge many managers have ever faced. People are scared – for their jobs, the families, and their health. And as their manager, many will look to you for leadership and guidance during this time. As a manager, you are faced with walking the line between providing reassurance and avoiding promises that you can’t possibly keep. What do you say and do when you can’t be sure that ‘everything will be ok’? Below are practical tips for dealing with this communication challenge.
Recognize that they are looking to you for reassurance. When employees share fears or concerns with you, it’s appropriate to empathize – but not to unload your own fears and issues. As the leader in the situation, it’s your responsibility to provide a sense of stability. Your team can’t lean on you when you are unstable yourself.
- Be honest with yourself and acknowledge what is going on for you.
- Reach out to the appropriate supports for yourself – your own manager perhaps, or other employee support resources.
- Once you have met your own needs, you are in a far better position to support the needs of your team.
Paint a picture of the future that people can rally towards. Uncertain times might mean that the future is unclear, or that you need to be prepared to pivot or adapt unexpectedly. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a plan. In fact, imagining and planning for your future state can provide a focal point for team struggling to find balance.
- Given the information you have now, paint a picture of what could be.
- Consider what opportunities are being presented by the current challenge, and what does a positive outcome looks like.
- Communicate this vision with your team, and use it to re-frame their current issues and challenges. For example, if they are struggling with working remotely, help them to envision what success in this area looks like and define steps to move in that direction. Not only does this create a positive shift in focus, but it lets your team members feel empowered and like they have at least some control in unpredictable times.
Do not over-promise or make commitments you can’t or aren’t certain you can keep. Optimism is good. But honestly is essential. The sweet spot is a sense of optimism based in the realities of the situation. If your industry has been upended, it’s optimistic but dishonest to say results won’t be affected and jobs are completely safe. An honest optimist would acknowledge the threat, and then focus on tangible actions that can be taken to mitigate it. Making promises you can’t keep might feel easy in the moment, since you are telling people what they want to hear. Ultimately, though, your team members will realize sooner or later that you haven’t been frank with them which will erode trust for the long-term. Instead, for example, you can reassure them that their jobs are likely safe, even though some cuts will be inevitable. But what can we say when the honest news is not good news?
- Trust that your teams are adults who can deal with difficult information.
- Provide just the facts that they need to know and avoid speculation or unconfirmed information.
- Emphasize what’s being done to mitigate potential negative turns of events and what supports are available to them.
- Reassure them that you will share accurate information with them as soon as you are able to do so.
Try to be consistent. When things change, explain why, and what the new course will be. This can be a challenge in dynamic and changeable situations. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, things can change quickly and unpredictably. How can we create a sense of consistency under these circumstances? By focusing on the items that are under our control, such as:
- Consistent updates let our team know when they can expect information, so that they feel up to date on the situation. This might take the form of a daily update email or weekly team meeting – whatever is appropriate to your context.
- Consistent expectations help the team to feel in control of their performance and efforts. This means that expectations are clearly communicated and ideally documented, so that teams don’t feel they are aiming at a moving target.
- Consistent availability means your team knows when and how to reach out to you. This doesn’t mean you are available 24/7 – it might look like set ‘office hours’ when they know you’ll be available for a quick call or text conversation, or an assurance that you’ll answer emails from the team by the end of the day.
Of course, the problem with change is that it often comes without warning. When this is the case, communicate. Let your team know what has changed, and why. Explain to them how it affects their daily efforts, including the updates and expectations above. Encourage them to use your availability to discuss specific concerns and map their new course.
Make sure your team knows you’re available for them. Ultimately, the actions outlined above let your team know that you are a trusted source of information and reassurance during difficult times. Simple, frequent reminders that you are available to answer questions and address confusion or concern can go a long way towards mitigating your team’s fears and keeping them focused and productive.