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How to communicate effectively in times of uncertainty

These five fundamental tools can help leaders effectively communicate with their teams and carry their organizations through uncertain times with a renewed sense of purpose and trust.
Ana Mendy

Helps organizations proactively prepare for adverse events, respond to crises, and transform their culture, with a focus on crisis response, diversity, inclusion, culture, and change management

During a crisis, an employee’s most trusted source of information is often their employer. For this reason, a leader’s words and actions can have a major impact on the well-being of those they manage; they can help keep people safe, help them adjust and cope emotionally and help them put their experience into context and draw meaning from it.

But crises also present leaders with infinitely complicated challenges and no easy answers. Tough trade-offs abound, and with them, tough decisions about communicating complex issues to diverse audiences.

The good news is that the fundamental tools of effective communication still work. Define and point to long-term goals, listen to and understand your stakeholders, and create openings for dialogue. Be proactive. But don’t stop there. Superior crisis communicators also do these five things well.

  1. Give people what they need, when they need it. 
    People’s information needs evolve in a crisis. So should a good communicator’s messaging.

    In a crisis’s early stages, communicators must provide instructing information to encourage calm; how to stay safe is fundamental. As people begin to follow safety instructions, communication can shift to a focus on adjusting to change and uncertainty. Finally, as the crisis’s end comes into view, ramp up internalizing information to help people make sense of the crisis and its impact.

  2. Communicate clearly, simply, frequently. 
    A crisis limits people’s capacity to absorb information in the early days. Focus on keeping employees safe and healthy. To convey crucial information to employees, keep messages simple, to the point and actionable.

    People tend to pay more attention to positively framed information; negative information can erode trust. Frame instructions as “dos” (best practices and benefits) rather than “don’ts” (what people shouldn’t do, or debunking myths).

    Also, communicators regularly underestimate how frequently messages must be repeated and reinforced. The study, “Inverted U-shaped model: How frequent repetition affects perceived risk” published in 2015, showed that an audience needs to hear a health-risk-related message nine to 21 times to maximize its perception of that risk. Establish a steady cadence; repeat the same messages frequently; and try mantras, rhyming and alliteration to improve message “stickiness.”

  3. Choose candor over charisma.
    Trust is never more important than in a crisis. Those who fail to build trust quickly in crises lose their employees’ confidence.

    Be honest about where things stand, differentiating clearly between what is known and unknown, and don’t minimize or speculate. Give people a behind-the-scenes view of the different options you are considering and involve stakeholders when making operational decisions.

    Judiciously share your own feelings and acknowledge the personal effects of emotional turmoil. Remember that what you do matters as much as what you say in building trust, and scrutiny of leaders’ actions is magnified during a crisis.

  4. Revitalize resilience.
    As the health crisis metastasizes into an economic crisis, accentuate the positive by sharing stories and creating uplifting moments to reignite resilient spirits. 

    Additionally, strengthen communal bonds to restore confidence. Helping others is a great way to improve well-being and reduce stress. It’s also important to rebuild a common social identity and a sense of belonging based on shared values, norms and habits.

  5. Distill meaning from chaos.
    The crisis will end. Help people make sense of all that has happened. 

    Early on, be clear about what your organization will achieve during this crisis. Establish a clear vision, or mantra, for how the organization and its people will emerge. Explore ways to connect the disruption employees face to something bigger.

    While it’s important to shape a story of meaning for your organization, it’s equally important to create a space where others can do the same for themselves. Ask people what conclusions they are drawing from this crisis and listen deeply.

Relying on these practices will help team members stay safe and infuse understanding and meaning in communities, helping to carry an organization through a crisis with a renewed sense of purpose and trust. For further guidance, please read “A leader’s guide: Communicating with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19.”

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