How should leaders communicate in a crisis? – ProTem
20 / 7 / 2022

How should leaders communicate in a crisis?

By Jeremy Raymond, a ProTem Expert

In a crisis, mismatching communication with perceptions can make things worse.

How are you feeling about the current crisis? Overwhelmed? Infuriated? Starting to believe we are making progress? Positive about what will come next?

Your answer probably relates to how closely you have been affected, and how your perceptions have been managed by your leaders; politicians, opinion formers you trust, your boss.

From the perspective of history all crises ebb and flow. The Black Death hit Europe in the mid 14th century and then came and went for centuries, but people weren’t that aware of these shifts unless their community was impacted. You were only a pandemic ‘hot spot’ if people you knew got sick or died. You probably relied on the local landowner, priest or doctor to interpret what was happening.

For example, Greta Thunberg (Political leader? Opinion-former?) said about the climate crisis that ‘the house is on fire’. This would have landed differently with Australians with their bush fires and people in Ironbridge in the UK after their third winter of flooding. But in either case, how far it would have ‘worked’ in changing people’s views of the crisis would also depend on their own experience. Was your house burned down or flooded? Were members of your family affected? Do you know or anybody who was impacted or did you just read about it? If you are a leader, trying to influence understanding and action in a crisis, judging how to pitch your messages depends on knowing your audience’s subjective ‘take’ on the current state of affairs. Assumptions about homogeneity of perception are often wrong. You may not be preaching to a choir but to a very diverse congregation.

In business an epidemic and a recession are both situations which start off as ‘house with fire risks’ but may end up as ‘conflagration’. Consciousness about risks tends to reflect not just what the leaders and media say, but also how ‘close to home’ the risks have come. Watching reactions over recent weeks reveals an evolution of crisis perception — what I’ve called the 8 degrees of criticality. When leaders match their own communication behaviour to this understanding, they raise awareness, create understanding and acceptance. They are more likely to get traction with what they say and spur action.

But when they don’t, they not only look out of touch, they may even increase perceptions of criticality, adding to anxiety, panic and confusion.

The 8 Degrees of Criticality

The model provides a simple taxonomy for stages in people’s perceptions of crises — health, environmental, economic or commercial. It may also work for military crises — maybe somebody will let me know? What I notice is that people’s understanding of a crisis does not always develop in a linear way any more than crises themselves evolve according to plan. People can go backwards as well as forwards in their thinking.

1. Potential

Perceived level of criticality: Predictable risk but no clear start points, or trigger. A potential risk of either low or uncertain potential, but relatively high impact. No recent experience of the risk in the audience.

Aim: To inform about the risk and alert to potential actions needed as the risk becomes clearer/nearer.

Style of communication: Deliberate, measured defining of the risk and explanation of potential to increase. Use of case studies to predict potential trajectory and effective evasive action (e.g. difference between epidemic and pandemic and the stages, how recessions work and what causes companies to survive or not). Emphasis on need for vigilance but no need to panic.

2. Calculable
Perceived level of criticality: Risk is now known, and impact partly quantified, but potential future direction remains unclear. 5 or 6 degrees of separation from the risk for most in the audience.

Aim: To ensure that people take the recommended evasive action to mitigate the known risks

Style of communication: Share a plan of simple actions, usually starting with preparations to mitigate the crisis, followed up with recommendations to mitigate the chance of the more negative trajectories (e.g. hand washing for virus, focus on retaining talent in impending recession by not dumping all development activity). If this requires slogans and mnemonics, then use them. Give regular, transparent updates on ‘progress’ in understanding the crisis. Share the impact of people following the plan and acting as instructed, including if these mitigating actions are not working. Highlight levels of compliance where possible.

3. Imminent
Perceived level of criticality: Risk is not only quantifiable, but its impact is starting to be accepted by the leader’s audience(s). 3–4 degrees of separation, perhaps. Somebody they know vaguely is impacted; they are to differing degrees concerned.

Aim: To ensure the safety of the business/people, and balance the inevitable trade-offs involved

Style of communication: Highlight empathy and dialogue, listening for concerns and responding to these. As risks will now be impacting different people differently, leaders must demonstrate understanding of specific situations/people, and tailor their recommended action to suit. This may mean some previous generic advice may need to be modified, potentially abandoned.

Mandate actions (for all), accompanied by specific instructions to groups, reflecting their situation or exposure to risk. Encourage limited discretion about how far individuals take action advised, within a clear frame of shared, collective responsibility. Information is now about how the collective/organisation will seek to protect its people (short term) and its continuing survival (medium term). (Not a good time to talk about strategy, as nobody is listening)

Do not over-promise; the future trajectory and impact of the crisis may be unknowable.

4. Current
Perceived level of criticality: Risk is now impacting the audience, their families and their work. Business is coping with the commercial impact of the risk on performance (or indeed survival). 3 or 2 degrees of separation from the risk and its impact.

Aims: To support people with organisational action (and the exercise of authority) while continuing to mandate individual action, potentially including negative or positive consequences for (non) compliance.
To provide some stability for people who are starting to be afraid.

Style of communication: Provde transparent information concerning the progress of the crisis and the effectiveness of action taken to mitigate risks. What we now know, but also what we still do not know.

Instruct people to stop, start and minimise certain action in line with managing the risk. Describe clear consequences for those who do not comply in the interests of the collective. Calm, considered but fundamentally optimistic tone. (Not a good time to discuss how the risk is impacting you, the leader, because, frankly, who cares…?) But a good time to talk about how other people (heroes?) who take the proscribed remedial actions are impacted less.

5. ‘Unprecedented’
Perceived level of criticality: Full blown crisis with the risk potentially exceeding expectations identified in previous stages (e.g. disease is more widespread, it isn’t declining as predicted). Two degrees of separation becoming one.
Aim: To minimise the feelings of fear, hopelessness, depression and paralysis which nasty surprises often cause.

Style of communication: Emphasise dealing with the emotions of panic and fear that mean people will be acting irrationally. People feel ‘why me/ us?’ in this situation and this sense of unfairness can lead to blaming the organisation or the leader.

Give simple, authoritative, informed instruction; “the 5 steps we will now have to take”. No discussion. Resolute in the face of the unexpected reverse. “We must and we will”. Don’t attempt self-justification — apologise for mistakes made but don’t dwell on them.(Transparent acknowledgement of what leaders have tried but hasn’t worked deflects the sense of frustration that ‘they aren’t listening’.) Make future promises about reviewing specific; “As soon as we are all safe ,we will institute a formal process of review”

Reassure people they will be ok in the end (even if this isn’t 100% certain), preferably linked to reliable, historical information about the subsequent positives in the aftermath.

6. Normalised
Perceived level of criticality: Risk is peaking, but families continue to be impacted and are often exhausted by their struggle to deal with the risk. 2 degrees becoming 3.

Aim: To maintain morale and continued effort to deal with the risk from tired people
Style of communication: Emphasise progress in dealing with the risk, even if it is still impacting people. Requires regular feedback from the organisation. Inform about action which will aid recovery. report on actions continuing to mitigate risks.

Show empathy, encourage collective discussion and facilitate the search for recovery ideas. Share ‘what we know’ about the next, ‘normalising’ stage, but don’t offer false hope either. Practical, pragmatic tone including the ‘what if’ we do not take this action (e.g. recovery delayed).

Express gratitude expressed for solidarity and sacrifice, highlighting the continuing need to learn.

7. Diminishing
Perceived level of criticality: Both probability and impact of the risk are subsiding but people are totally exhausted. The need to move forward is held back by the effort involved. Back to 4–6 degrees of separation.

Aim: To create hope and a sense of possibility. To recruit people to a vision of what might be better and to avoid what they have experienced ever happening again

Style of communication: Emphasise the new opportunity, what was overlooked ‘before’. Both a vision of the future and a tangible plan of action to get there. Massive flexibility on the timetable, however, or people may feel they are being driven when they are exhausted. Crucial that the plan identifies collective steps to anticipate and prevent a recurrence of the crisis where possible.

Share personal energy and excitement about the future. (Leaders will be exhausted by this point too but mustn’t show it). Don’t allow recriminations without facts (although people will want to blame others for what has happened). Not the moment for individual leadership ‘heroics’ or ‘feats of daring’ either, as these sound false.

8. Theoretically (still) possible
Perceived level of criticality: Risk has reduced to lower, manageable level, but the conditions for it recurring are always there. No recent personal experience of the risk in the majority audience.

Aim: To remind people that continued vigilance is necessary to prevent a recurrence

Style of communication:

Highlight what was learned in the past, including all the mistakes. (Why do we rarely learn from history?). Keep memories alive with the stories of the crisis, and anniversaries. Celebrate how we prevented the worst and what happened when we forgot and didn’t act swiftly enough. Keep the stories factual rather they mythologising them. Highlight how learning has been applied. ‘We live in a volatile world; the best tactic is to remain vigilant’.

So which degree of criticality best describes where you are? And how are your leaders communicating? Does the way they communicate help you to be more aware, well-informed, open to agreeing with their advice and taking action?

People will only act on what they accept, only accept what they understand, and only understand what they have been made aware of. Leaders communicating inappropriately may forget this critical sequence for gaining commitment.

What about the leader’s tone of crisis communication?

Tone is hard to assess unaided. We hear our own voice through the bones of our skulls and we rarely know the impact of our communication. How do your leaders come across? Cold and distant? Pompous and opinionated? Intimidating?

Observing the current situation suggests the following lessons in tone:

· ‘We’ not ‘I’. Resolving the crisis is not about being a hero yourself, it is the result of well-coordinated actions by a motivated, well informed team who believe in what they are doing (and their leader’s ability to help them all get through).

· Stories not just slogans . Leaders are more visible on different platforms in a crisis than before. They mix set-piece announcements and lots of local, low key interaction, some of which creates stories and myths which they pass on. They are seen as honest and transparent about the crisis and its impact on people — they do not attempt to ‘make it nice’ for their audience and neither do they simplify. The story has a happy ending, but not quite what we predicted.

· Optimistic, but not naïve. Communicating in a bombastic, gung-ho way in a crisis doesn’t work, but patient attention to the longer term — where we want to ultimately get to — is also part of what sustains the leader’s audience. A transparent belief in a better future means that leaders encourage experimentation and innovating even in the midst of a crisis, as if they really believe in ‘creative destruction’. This is never achieved without sacrifice. There are no free passes.

· Calm and emotionally resilient. Leaders who are aware of their own level of stress have ways to manage this so that they can ‘perform’ as their audience and the stage of risk requires. They remain connected to other people’s feelings, without being overwhelmed by their own. This ability is vital for followers who are often shattered by the crisis. It is also critical for the energy of the leader that they can still do other — ‘normal life’ things; meeting friends, continuing to explore private passions, carrying on with their hobby or sport. These become part of their shared narrative too. Physical and mental well-being are crucial for leaders to manage their own stress, and regular practice of exercise — physical and mental — builds necessary resilience. It also provides ‘proof’ of their belief in the richness of life.

Can any leader adjust their tone to demonstrate these four attributes? Theoretically, yes. Bu each leader’s personality will mean they are more/less able to read the situation and adjust their tactics accordingly.

What’s been your experience? How have your leaders influenced your perceptions of the current crisis? How well have they matched their communication tactics to your mood?

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