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9 actionable ways to lead with transparency in uncertain times

Crisis communication is essential right now. But how can leaders do it well?

7 min read


9 actionable ways to lead with transparency in uncertain times

Pixabay image/SmartBrief illustration

As an executive coach, my key task in this critical time of change is to help leaders remain calm within the storm. By modeling that confident, capable spirit to their team, giving clear direction and providing transparent communication, leaders will help everyone to feel calmer and act as a unified team.

That’s what differentiates the active leaders from the rest of the crowd. I urge all my clients to be straightforward about how the changes that are occurring may affect them, while showing that they fully believe their team to be capable of navigating them.

Numerous clients have reached out with the same question: How should they communicate with their employees during and after a crisis?

Whether they’re responding to COVID-19 or another crisis that will affect them in the future, they need a toolkit of proven crisis communication strategies.

Consistent and transparent communication is vital, I tell them. Strong communication strategies will help you continue to manage the transitions in progress and prepare yourself for any future crisis. Keep your coworkers, managers, teams, and employees informed about what’s happening throughout the duration of the pandemic, so they know you’re on the same team.

Even if you spoke with them frankly when you first made the decision to go remote, it’s vital to keep reevaluating and redelivering strong and up-to-date messages about how what’s happening affects you all. As any crisis can shake the business landscape across industries, your employees will know you’re doing your best to respond to an unpredictable situation.

Employees are more likely now than ever to be understanding about dramatic changes, as long as you’re clearly concerned about everyone’s well-being — and as long as you’re transparent about what’s happening. But many leaders need a lot of guidance in that department, which is understandable, since they’re dealing with a lot of anxiety themselves.

“Only 39% of U.S. employees strongly agree that their employer has communicated a clear plan of action in response to COVID-19,” Gallup says. Be the exception rather than the rule, I urge my clients. Leaders have a duty to articulate a clear plan of action on how their organization is responding to any major change.

Here are some essential tips for communicating directly and openly about this challenging time. Start putting them to use now, and evaluate your success with each of them on a weekly basis in order to hone your crisis leadership skills. You’ll not only navigate the current crisis with grace and effectiveness, but will also prime yourself to lead through any major challenge.

  1. Don’t try to minimize risks. Many employers aim to ease employees’ fears by delivering a fairytale version of reality — one in which only the best-case scenario is possible. That always backfires, however. Your employees are smart people; that’s why you hired them, right? They’re deeply concerned about the risks you’re all facing, which they know are real, so don’t downplay them. Your team will read right through any sugarcoating of the situation by senior management.
  2. Highlight the pathway forward. Rather than minimizing risks, focus on the scenario that is most likely to happen if everyone does their part. Drive toward that goal, emphasizing how everyone plays a role in that process. Give each person specific actions they can take to bring your whole team closer to that goal. Each manager should know how to outline these actions for each of their direct reports. That will give everyone a sense of control over the situation, and thus, a sense of optimism about the future that keeps morale high, as the American Psychological Association points out.
  3. Hash out a communication strategy. Create talking points and guidelines for all managers to use, so you’ll deliver a cohesive message to employees across the organization. Make sure your talking points are grounded in reality, provide real direction, and speak to employees’ top concerns.
  4. Establish a cross-functional team. Assemble a team of people from various functions to determine your course of action as you continue to navigate the changes ahead. That way, you’ll gain insight from across the organization. Plus, the staff within different departments will hear updates from the team members they’re most closely connected with. Knowing that a trusted peer is working on this ad-hoc committee and giving them personal updates will boost transparency.  

  5. Create backup plans. As Deloitte suggests in a March 2020 report, create temporary succession plans for your organization. Individuals may become unavailable for shorter or longer periods of time, so create contingency plans for how to fill critical roles within various scenarios. Develop clear decision-making structures that address different potential scenarios so you’ll always have a backup plan.
  6. Seek input from everyone. Deliver a survey that asks employees about their fears and primary concerns, so you can determine how to alleviate them. Gallup has created a free pulse survey that you can use to gage how you’re currently doing with gaining your employees’ trust during the coronavirus crisis.
  7. Communicate key priorities. Your organization may need to regroup and reprioritize due to the changes you’re experiencing. Having a hierarchical list of key priorities will help staff know what to focus on, adapting as needed, especially if current roles fluctuate.
  8. Create a video from the CEO. Since the CEO can’t talk to all employees at once, record a video message in which the CEO speaks directly to the whole team. Knowing that top leadership has taken the time to respond to their concerns will assure employees that they are important and valued. At critical moments like this, an inspiring message from a top leader can unify the team and provide an excellent morale boost.
  9. Ask for help. Mobilize people to take action in specific ways by directly asking for their help. They’ll feel invested in navigating the changes ahead by finding novel solutions when you empower them to take action. Affirm their strengths, present the challenges you need solutions for, and ask them to put their heads together to decide how to best handle them.

Keep a cool head, and you’ll make wiser choices in this time of dramatic transition and throughout your career. Remember, a wealth of ingenuity exists within your team, and people have a knack for coming together to create brilliant solutions in chaotic times. Empower them with knowledge, direction, and the opportunity to take action, and you’ll see outstanding results.


Do you need an executive coach who can give you clear direction on how to navigate the rapid transitions you’re experiencing? Garfinkle provides both webinar trainings and virtual coaching to help you become the leader your people need in this moment. He recently delivered a webinar to leaders of a major IT company on how to manage stress in their workplace. Subscribe to his Fulfillment at Work Newsletter and receive the free e-book “41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!” You’ll also find 75 of Garfinkle’s 2-minute motivational videos on his YouTube channel.

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