“In the absence of information, people assume the worst”

Communication is a vital leadership function at any time, but in a crisis, it is even more important. Yet over and over again, leaders pull their heads into their shells, leaving an information vacuum. When people are not hearing from their leaders, they assume that things are bad, even worse than they really are.

There are several common reasons why leaders leave this void.

A commonly cited reason given is that they did not know they should be communicating more. The validity of that excuse expires after one use.

A particularly ridiculous reason often given is that people really aren’t interested. At best it is an invalid assumption. People are very interested in the world around them and matters that affect them.

Almost as bad is when a leader explains that they don’t tell people things because they really don’t need to know. This comes back to haunt a leader when someone on their team misunderstands an assignment because they didn’t know the context, or when a valued team-member resigns because they didn’t have access to key information.

Perhaps underlying all of these is simple fear. Leaders of all sorts — managers, supervisors, company owners, etc. — are human, and it is normal to be uncomfortable being the center of attention. But being afraid to communicate, and thus not communicating, is not a good reason for providing inadequate communication. Communicating is part of a leader’s job, and must be a priority. This is particularly true in a time of crisis.

Some tips on how to be an excellent communicator:

  • Make communication a high priority
  • Put various forms of communication on your daily to-do list. A particularly helpful form of communication you can do every day is “management by walking around,” MBWA. It is amazing what you can learn, and share, by simply walking around your place of business for 10 or 15 minutes a day
  • As you go through your day, constantly ask yourself, “Who needs to know about this,” or, “Who else needs to be a part of this project?”
  • Develop a communication matrix. On one axis lists your various constituencies like direct reports, key customers, your management team, all employees, suppliers, board of directors. On the other axis list the various media you can employ such as email, newsletter, website, weekly meetings, posters, etc. Where each pair intersects, set a plan for how to use that medium with that constituency, and how often
  • Develop a schedule for routine communications. Predictable communications increase performance and decrease stress. Some examples:
    • Monthly all-company meetings
    • Weekly management meetings
    • Monthly company newsletters
    • Weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one meetings with each direct report
    • Quarterly board meetings

If you are tempted to say you don’t have time for much communication, think again. Deliberate and thorough communication actually improves effectiveness. Employees understand the “why” of their assignments better and need less explanation; mistakes decrease; morale increases; and the need to repeat topics with numerous people decreases.

Dave Bartholomew is retired after a career as a business adviser to leaders around the world. He and his wife Nancy also owned Simply Living Farm, a retailer of goods for a sustainable life. Prior to that he was CEO of several manufacturing companies in the outdoor recreation industry. He has authored three books, written numerous regular columns and taught at many universities. He can be reached at dave@ascentadvising.com.