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Leading Off
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There was no communication playbook when COVID-19 broke out. Beset by the pandemic and overwhelmed by information pouring in from governments and the media, the best leaders focused intensely on communicating with employees in a variety of ways and often in a tone they were not used to employing: by reassuring, listening, comforting, and trying to boost hope and resilience. Traditional top-down mandates gave way to informal and authentic conversations, often in virtual settings. As the crisis abates, the experience of forging deeper interpersonal connections can be a catalyst for lasting changes in the way leaders communicate with employees and stakeholders. This week, let’s explore what your new communications playbook might look like.
Illustration of a green arrow and a white arrow pointing towards the right
Change your communication style to suit the ‘next normal’
So much changed during the pandemic—relationships between employers and employees, boundaries between home and work, people’s aspirations for the future. Leaders must build these profound shifts into every new communication they plan. As return-to-the-workplace models develop, the goal should not be to issue mandates but to nurture thoughtful two-way dialogues and work as a partner with employees to develop solutions. Listen to and engage with employees when presenting a picture of the future workplace, and keep in mind that a postpandemic, largely burned-out workforce will expect you to deliver compelling and inspiring messages. In the long term, connecting with employees, understanding their needs and feelings, and offering personalized experiences will be key to engaging and retaining workers.
Since returning to the office is such a sensitive topic these days, leaders might want to consider five key strategies to strike the right balance in communicating their plans to employees. Most important, they should avoid dictating an overarching policy that expects everyone back in the office: it signals to the organization that leaders may be engineering a throwback to the old ways—and might send employees running for the exit. It’s also essential to be clear on the “why”: Why do you need your team to be on-site? Even if people know what needs to be done and how to do it, they are rarely motivated to comply if they don’t understand why they should do it, as this Harvard Business Review commentary points out.
“Whether you are a CEO, a government official, a teacher or a parent, when disaster strikes you need to be able to give people who depend on you basic data to guide their response and an empathetic acknowledgment that things are perilous but will get better.”
That’s Juliette Kayyem, director of the Homeland Security Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In this Wall Street Journal article, Kayyem contends that while today’s organizations have mastered disaster preparedness, they’re not adept at managing communications to ensure coordinated responses. Describing her own experience with an environmental disaster where local authorities were left out of the information flow, Kayyem recommends creating a daily situation awareness report—which can be an email or virtual meeting—that shares information with all stakeholders. Such reports should document “the actions that have been taken, those that need to be done, and problems that are likely to come up in the future—for example, a shortage in the supply chain,” she says. “It’s crucial to establish those systems now, because the next disaster could very well happen tomorrow.”
Headshot of Carlos Migoya, CEO of Florida-based Jackson Health
For Carlos Migoya, CEO of Florida-based Jackson Health, being a good communicator depends on one thing: enjoying people. As a self-described “people person,” Migoya relied on connecting with employees to pull through the crisis when COVID-19 slammed his company. “The only thing I knew to do was leading with humility: telling people we don’t know what’s going on and working through this,” he recounts in this interview with McKinsey. “The worst challenge was the misinformation that was going on. What we were doing was fighting that more and more … we were having town halls with all of our employees twice a week.” In the future, listening to employees and attending to their needs will be the biggest change in how CEOs engage with their organizations, Migoya says.
A photo of two goldfish in separate bowls
Poor communication has tangible consequences in the workplace: 44 percent of respondents to a survey of executives say that communication barriers cause delays or failure to complete projects, and 18 percent blame miscommunication for the loss of sales, some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The worst culprits are people having different communication styles and not using the right communication tools. For example, presenting hard data to someone who prefers a more intuitive approach is unlikely to work, and sending emails to a recipient who responds best to in-person interaction may misfire. According to the researchers, “Future leaders must have the ability to communicate across styles and modes, reaching across generations.”
Lead by communicating well.
— Edited by Rama Ramaswami, a senior editor in McKinsey’s Stamford office
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