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Communicate proactively, not as an afterthought

Most organizations and teams face crises at some point or other – it is expected although the how the crisis will manifest may not be known. The difference in today’s situation is that a lot of organizations are facing similar crises, due to the same trigger, simultaneously.

At the macroeconomic level, that is a major problem. For you and your team, what you need to do, how and by when may have also changed.

What hasn’t changed is the need for you to lead your team through a crisis. Once you get clear on your priorities, you have to ensure your team has the same level of clarity as you do.

Provide context and clarity

It is the curse of knowledge that when we are deep in a subject and have been working on a plan or our analysis for days (e.g., planning for shifting the workforce to working from home), we forget that others do not have the same background or exposure. Or maybe they have been focused on their priorities which are different from ours.

This is especially difficult to remember when the others are our own team members who we see all the time. The frequency of meeting makes us assume that we share knowledge, but that IS an assumption.

So provide context! Every single time! Especially when it is a big decision.

Tell them why.

Tell them what’s in it for them.

Tell them how the changes will work.

Tell them what they need to get done by when, especially if things have changed.

And if you don’t have the answers because you’re still working on them, tell them that.

And if they have raised an issue you hadn’t thought of, thank them for it and share your plan to address it.

You don’t have to tell them EVERYTHING, but you have to give them clarity on what everything means for them and what expectations are of them.

Err on the side of over-communication

Crisis impacts our ability to perceive, listen, think, recall, decide and learn to different extents – at its worst resulting in debilitating fear, paralyzing confusion, and inability to function at tasks which were previously routing and for which we hold the necessary skills and abilities.

To address the difficulty in recall and learning, you must over-communicate. Repeat the same information multiple times. If possible, through multiple methods, e.g., all-hands talks, emails, team meetings, 1 on 1 conversations.

At the same time, you don’t want to add to the confusion and cognitive load. So prioritize what your team needs to know and share new information in bite-sized pieces that are contextualized within information is known and safe.

Then repeat it.

Focus on communication being a 2-way (or multi-way) street

It is easy, in the midst of a crisis when you are pulled in multiple directions, (like looking for financial support to keep your payroll going), to shift to getting things done in the fastest, most efficient way possible. This is great, even essential, for processes, acquiring new knowledge and completing analyses.

However, it can be detrimental when communicating with your team because under such circumstances, efficiency may equate with unidirectional communication, e.g., informing, setting and communicating unrealistic goals, establishing accountability timelines or processes that don’t work for your people.

This approach may appear to save time initially but will eventually result in lost productivity, engagement and in some cases trust. This happens because in this approach, you fail to ensure clarity of priorities and expectations, to take into account your team members' unique challenges and show up as a manager instead of a leader.

So please, make it a conversation, a dialogue so you can mutually agree on deadlines and accountability processes and continue to build trust despite external pressures.

Be vulnerable first

Earlier this week, I learned about a manager who was having trouble getting his team to share their challenges with him because their workplace culture required one to leave their personal problems at home. He knew his team was struggling but was unable to draw them out so he could help them.

He is not alone! Most workplaces still haven’t evolved to let their people bring 100% of themselves to work. With the sudden blurring of work and home lives, changing the ingrained behaviors is difficult.

That doesn’t mean you can’t take this opportunity to make a shift. One way to do so, is to lead the way by being vulnerable first. Share one of your personal challenges and ask your team for advice.

Don’t tell them what to do, role model the behavior you want to see. Make it comfortable for them to seek help, not just from you but from each other, by demonstrating how it is done and showing them that it is safe to do so.

Ask, don’t assume

One of the advantages of a shared workplace environment, is the shared knowledge about available resources (e.g., cafeteria) and issues (e.g., the broken water cooler on the 3rd floor). However, when the team is distributed, especially if your company culture is to leave home at home, you likely have no idea about the specific situations your team members' are dealing with.

Your own challenges sensitize you to others facing the same issues, and you may put in place processes and workarounds to solve for them. But you may be overlooking the specific challenges your team is facing that you are not.

For example, each member of your team may have a different level of comfort with virtual work tools. Attending the same training may not serve their specific needs. So ask your team what they need and put in place solutions that cater to their specific challenges. Actively question your assumptions and keep the dialogue going.

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