Pallavi Pinakin explains why leaders must interact with their team members

The game-changing events of last year have pushed internal communications to the top of the list of priorities. With widespread chaos in the market and stressful uncertainties in the personal lives of workers, there is a crying need for clarity within teams and organisations.

While the dust may settle at some point, the aftershocks are unlikely to stop anytime soon. Leaders at all levels from team leads and mid-level management, all the way up to the C-suite, are being called upon to raise their communications game.

Most companies are in survival mode and that makes communications critical. We need creative thinking to solve today’s unprecedented problems, which means that teams need to pull together and collaborate, innovate and push boundaries.

In such a scenario, confusing messages that lack empathy from the top pose a very real danger. After all, who wants to go the extra mile for a boss who fails to check in, doesn’t communicate transparently and demonstrates little concern for employees as human beings?

Here are some strategies for more effective communications in a crisis.

CLARIFY With the recent global upheaval, several organisations have seen key changes in the workforce. Job descriptions have evolved, roles have been combined and departments have been shuffled around.

Some responsibilities have become defunct and been replaced by brand-new tasks. Many of these changes have been handled verbally and informally, and not formalised. This has understandably created confusion in the workplace. People may avoid asking important questions because they’re anxious not to be seen as incompetent in these troubling times.

So leaders must make time to sit down with their direct reports and realign themselves on the basics – roles and responsibilities, short-term targets and long-term goals. Remember, clarity is a prerequisite for team members to do their jobs properly.

CONCERN Empathy and compassion are the pillars of crisis appropriate communications.

As a McKinsey paper on leadership during the pandemic correctly observed: “A landscape scale crisis such as COVID-19 strips leadership back to its most fundamental element of making a positive difference in people’s lives. As our research has outlined, an imperative for leaders in such times is to demonstrate compassionate leadership and make dealing with the unfolding human tragedy their first priority.”

Simply put, leaders must connect with their teams at a human and emotional level. It’s not enough to care in your mind – that care needs to be translated into tangible terms.

If you notice a team member sounding stressed, initiate a chat to see how he or she is doing. If they mention that their kids have the sniffles, follow up for an update. If they miss a deadline, check to make sure everything is okay on the personal front.

Allow people to share their struggles and talk about emotions, such as worry and fear, instead of shutting them down with dismissive statements like ‘snap out of it!’ or ‘it’s really not that bad.’

Finally, if a team member is performing well, express your genuine appreciation. An empathetic leader sets off a positive chain reaction in the team, creating a caring and supportive environment.

PURPOSE A large-scale crisis such as the pandemic can leave employees feeling disconnected and deeply anxious.

The best antidote is to create a sense of purpose. Return to the fundamentals – i.e. your values, mission and objectives as an organisation. Talk about these aspects regularly during meetings, as well as informal conversations, to stabilise and inspire your team.

Or you can focus on team purpose instead. What do you stand for as a group? And what is the big picture you’re trying to achieve through your daily tasks?

By infusing regular workdays with a deeper meaning, you can re-engage your team while laying invaluable groundwork for the future.

INFORM Having originated in the Prussian military in the 19th century, mission command is a form of leadership that enables agility and nimbleness, which are the need of the hour right now. Mission command, which is founded on the belief that ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy,’ is based on honesty and empowerment.

The leader tells team members exactly what they need to do and how their tasks will fit into the bigger picture. Each person can then decide how to accomplish their assigned task. This fosters a high degree of autonomy and flexibility.

Too often in times of crisis, leaders keep their cards close to their chest and withhold key pieces of information from their teams. The mission command style of communication creates much needed transparency and gives each team member as much information as possible, which they can then use to make independent decisions and execute their tasks satisfactorily.