As the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico has shown, leaders under pressure are prone to the occasional slip-up. In Tony Hayward's case, the media was only too quick to leap on any communications ‘gaffe’, and the results have been well documented.
This example raises an important question about how the language of leaders under pressure not only affects external perception, but can also impact the response of employees – who are tasked with getting on with their jobs when the organisation comes under external fire. MT asked UK 'skills czar' Chris Humphries, who oversees Investors in People, for his top ten tips on how to maintain employee morale and motivation in a crisis:
1. Don’t allow an information vacuum to form
In times of crisis, employees look to leaders for information, answers and confidence. If this isn’t forthcoming, they’ll start to rely on media reporting or – even worse – the rumour mill. Leaders must communicate with employees proactively throughout the duration of the crisis. They have to make sure they are seen as the credible source of the latest, factual information for employees.
2. Be consistent
In terms of the link between internal and external stakeholders, leaders need to realise that the words they use externally will also be heard by employees – who will be looking for signals or inferences to draw. Any divergence between what they are told internally and what they see externally will be especially damaging.
3. Demonstrate conviction
Employees may feel de-stabilised by events and the media spotlight that falls on them. So it’s vital that leaders show their confidence in the organisation’s course of action clearly and consistently. Demonstrating confidence in the ability of the organisation’s people to help it pull through can also be very motivating.
4. Choose your words carefully
Crises are emotive things, so try to avoid making throwaway comments that might be misconstrued. While a human reaction is important, providing a calm, balanced response will help to prevent your comments from being misunderstood.
5. Be as honest as you can be
While it may be tempting to shield employees, there’s no point in creating a false sense of security. Acknowledging the gravity of the situation – and being clear about how you are going to address this – is important to maintain employee commitment to the organisation.
6. Acknowledge the pressure that employees are under
In times of crisis, it’s easy to feel that the world’s against you. Even under this level of pressure, it’s important to demonstrate openness, empathy and commitment to employees. Without that extra bit of recognition, it’s all too easy for morale to dip.
7. Use the tools at your disposal to reach employees quickly and credibly
Personal briefings through face-to-face meetings, webcasts or even audio-only conferences can be important. Email and intranet statements can play a part. The key is to build a programme of communication that harnesses the range of tools necessary to engage and support employees across the company.
8. Seek and respond to views from your people
Employees need to know their ideas and concerns are being heard. Leaving time at the end of employee briefings, offering specific Q&A sessions, inviting comments on blog posts – these are all mechanisms that can help invite and respond to feedback and concerns .
9. Empower employees to be part of the solution
There may be opportunities for employees to help address the crisis situation and harnessing this resource will to help can be hugely valuable. The vast manpower required to help plug the BP oil leak is a case in point. Showing appreciation for this contribution –which may mean long, stressful days – is vital.
10. Recognise the importance of ‘business as usual’
Where employees aren’t directly involved in addressing the crisis situation, leaders need to find ways to keep up morale and motivation so that they can keep the rest of the organisation running effectively. It’s easy to focus on the short-term in the midst of a crisis. Ensuring that employees continue to focus on the long-term future of the business will help it emerge from tough times in good shape to rebuild for the future.
Chris Humphries is Chief Executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which has strategic responsibility for Investors in People.
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