In times of crisis, leaders get plenty of advice to “over-communicate.” This sort of advice has the same effect on leaders as generic advice has on people in their organization – little. Why?
Because it lacks depth and cannot adequately inspire people’s thinking so they know how to apply it in their specific context.When advice is simply to increase frequency without anything more substantial or nuanced added, the result is sometimes bromides, truisms, and catchphrases that don’t engage people or help them. In the worst case, poor communications breed cynicism which is a motivation killer.
Leaders have dual responsibilities when communicating – to convey information and create a sense of connection. Connection with others, to a shared purpose and to a sense that one is making a contribution is a psychological fuel that helps, especially when stress runs high.
Communicating with people via email, video messages, and streaming town halls is necessary to provide information. Leaders need to provide information in ways that are clear, calm, and parsimonious. Pragmatically, mass communication is sometimes necessary, but it need not be mechanical or a masterpiece. Great orators are rare, but many people can become great leaders by focusing on connection over perfection.
An imperfect speaker who is sincere and demonstrates a real appreciation for the people around them has more ability to engage people than someone who simply repeats popular phrases. Often, the image in our minds is someone who is polished and moves people deeply. Rather than pursue perfection, aim for accuracy of information, and shared purpose.
Here are a few strategies that will help.
Leaders who communicate well to a large group do the following:
- Embody the most laudable values of their organization. The long-serving Chairman and CEO of Darden Restaurants, Joe Lee, is an example of this. He was genial, thoughtful, and focused on the company being built for “now and generations.” He was an invited speaker at an all-hands meeting of my former employer and instead of showing up, speaking, and leaving, he asked if he could join us so he could learn from the other speakers and participate with us.
- Use examples that are close at hand. Famous people are easy to point to or quote. People can learn from stories of success and failures, especially when the examples have enough in common with the immediate situation. Oft-repeated tales of famous people can be thrilling but they may be difficult to relate to in a pragmatic sense. A leader who uses examples that are right in front of them conveys that they see and value what people do.
- Tell people what good they do. Every organization has customers, stakeholders, partners, etc. Yet, often conversations within a company miss the opportunity to let people know what good they do. What difference does it make that people show up? Thankfully, people everywhere are participating in letting healthcare workers, first responders, and all essential workers, know how valuable they are and how much we admire them. In less stressful times, leaders can use this as a model – connecting even routine work to an outcome about which people can be proud.
- Show up. Leaders who have a tremendous impact don’t phone it in. They don’t accept a vanilla copy from someone who may be writing for them. They do the mental and emotional work to ensure their message can be sincerely delivered. They find connections themselves; they don’t just talk about it.
- Manage themselves. Leaders who are most effective don’t let their own fears in a time of crisis lead them to vent and ramble as a way of dissipating their emotions. Talking at people does not influence them – it distances them. While it’s natural in a crisis for anyone to feel disrupted to a greater or lesser degree, it is the leader’s job to take care of themselves well enough that their audience does not suffer the leader’s anxiety.
Information engages the brain – connection engages motivation. Leaders need to transmit information and connect with people. Doing so helps people know what to do and gives them a sense of purpose that fuels motivation and provides a sense of meaning.
I’ve suggested to my best clients that they think about what each person on their team possesses as an outstanding talent. Then, tell the person three things:
- What that talent is
- When you have observed it
- What good it does
I’d love to hear from you after you do this.