“Me want to go on the playground!”
“Lucy, it’s closed right now because of the virus. Remember? This is also why your school is closed.”
“OK, me go on the slide one more time.”
“Well the slide is on the playground – see the yellow tape? The whole playground is closed because of the virus – we don’t want to get anyone else sick and we don’t want to get sick, so we are trying to just play with our own toys at home.”
“But me WANT TO GO to playground!”
When COVID-19 hit, I was out on paternity leave so my “team” was my family. The more I reflected on how Andi and I were communicating with each other and with Lucy, the more applicable this framework is to communicating as a leader at work.
- Keep it simple
- Don’t exaggerate or lie
- Set a cadence for communicating and reinforce your message often – even when a question isn’t being asked
- Use active listening (and your compassion practice) to understand and empathize with frustrations and concerns
- Stay humble and vulnerable. It’s ok to not have all the answers, it’s not ok to not show up to the conversation
With toddlers, you are dealing with a limited vocabulary and a more limited attention span. When our brains are dealing with stress (*hint* this happens during a crisis), our ability to regulate emotions, process information and remember things are all impacted. (Lot’s of great science on this from a variety of published journals!) I’m not saying you become a toddler under stress… but I’m saying that your ability to emotionally and rationally process new information and signals dramatically changes.
Reflect on how many outbursts you have had since the pandemic started. How many more fights than normal with your significant other? Would you say you are more or less patient than before the pandemic hit?
None of this is to make us feel even worse about how we are dealing with whatever crisis is happening in our lives right now, but to highlight that in crisis, your brain changes. It also changes the brains of your team, your friends, and your family. Which is why you need to show up to each conversation with intention.
If you are scared that you will say the wrong thing and further trigger an emotional response from those around you – that is a fair fear! Just note that your silence on a topic is a form of communication. An example (real life) narrative that emerged during the first two months of COVID-19’s layoffs. Most leaders choose to either project confidence, “our business model is durable and we won’t be impacted” or decided to silent on the impact until the day they had to do layoffs or furloughs. Most employees rightly guessed something was coming creating distrust in that leader when the narrative changed.
Let’s go back to our strategies and re-apply them to the first two weeks of COVID-19 and safer at home orders:
- Keep it simple. You are leader and in that first two weeks, you don’t know how much your business will be impacted. Keeping it simple means you educate yourself about the potential impacts and share what you do know. “We know that our business will be impacted by COVID-19, by safer at home orders, and by decreased spending.”
- Don’t exaggerate or lie. In the first few weeks of a crisis, you still don’t know what is going to happen. Our tendency (and some feel responsibility) is to portray confidence in face of adversity. My favorite leaders are those that inspire hope, but do not exaggerate or lie. “What we don’t know right how is how long we will be impacted or by how much. We are hoping for a fast recovery so we can get back to serving our customers.”
- Set a cadence for communicating and reinforce your message often – even when a question isn’t being asked. Every time we go to the park, Lucy still asks if she can play. At first I would get frustrated at her, I mean we have talked about this hundreds of times! Then, we realized that we weren’t communicating regularly and holistically about how her life is impacted which was leading to frustration on her side not just about the park, but about not being able to go to “Mimi’s house”, go to school or see her friends. Set a calendar reminder for an open Q&A, stand-up or weekly communication – don’t wait until your team asks the question again, proactively message about what has changed!
- Use active listening (and your compassion practice) to understand and empathize with frustrations and concerns. Everyone’s impact during crisis is different. Some people might be trying to work full-time jobs with children at home and others might have spouses or friends who lost their jobs. It is your job as a leader to educate understand as many of these experiences as you can to adapt your on-going communications, approach and policies.
- Stay humble and vulnerable. It’s ok to not have all the answers, it’s not ok to not show up to the conversation. It can be hard to admit that your course of action under stress was the wrong course. Stay humble and vulnerable. In crisis, the single biggest way you can continue to build trust with your team is to share your fears and admit you were wrong.