May 7, 2020

Leading beyond the crisis: How communication and trust can make or break leaders

With research identifying trust, communication and taking action as key to effective leadership, how can leaders connect with their people and increase trust during the current crisis and beyond? How can leaders deliver on such high expectations of themselves and the business?

Easy to say, hard to do right now. For leaders, the past few weeks and months have been the greatest test of leadership ever imagined. Taking time to think and reflect on the emerging crisis, the immediacy, focusing on survival or meeting absolute peaks in demand and identifying critical priorities, whilst at the same time, imagining what the future might look like, requires clarity of thought, clarity of decisions and clarity of communication. Going forward, what do we need to remobilise? Where? When? And who do we need to be as a business as we emerge from the current uncertainty?

With clarity of thought and communication comes connection. Leaders that connect and have the courage to be human – to help their people and serve their people – these leaders can connect on multiple levels. Having a clear vision of where we are going, gaining consensus, engaging people and connecting with people on an individual level, delivered with charisma, credibility and doing what they say they'll do, will ultimately gain trust.

Employees place trust in their leaders and business

The latest research identifies trust in an employer to respond effectively, communicate and take action to protect their employees and communities as essential for navigating the current crisis.

Edelman, the global communications firm, launched their 20th annual Trust Barometer in Davos this January, providing insights that help leaders navigate society's rapid changes. Like all of us, they were unaware of how rapid and alarming the coronavirus pandemic would impact on the world socially and economically in such a short space of time. Their subsequent Covid-19 special report reports reveals:

  • 78% of respondents expect a business to act to protect employees and the local community.
  • 8 out of 10 respondents rate their employer as better prepared for the virus than their country; this was backed up by 62% confirming their high trust in their employer to respond effectively and responsibly to the virus.
  • Compounding the known issues in trust with government and the media before the pandemic, respondents rated their employer communications as the most credible source of information about the coronavirus situation (rating employer communications some 27 points above the government and media).

In short, Edelman confirms there are 'high expectations of business to act'.

Many people state that they have lost trust in government and are turning to their employer to lead and protect them through the pandemic. Stephen Covey wrote, "Without trust we don't truly collaborate; we merely coordinate or, at best, cooperate. It is trust that transforms a group of people into a team."

So how do leaders make that connection and gain our trust? How do they deliver bad news whilst maintaining or even increasing trust?

Communicating in a crisis will make or break leaders. Uri Friedman writing in the Atlantic this week talks about how many of the younger generation of world leaders have expertly navigated the coronavirus crisis. It's how they handle what comes next that will matter more. Bill Gates has criticised governments and world leaders for failing to prepare for a global pandemic, stating 'very few countries are going to get an A-grade' for their failure to prepare and respond quickly and effectively to the pandemic.

What does great leadership in a crisis look like?

The world is looking on in admiration of leaders like Jacinda Ardern who, along with public health institutions, the opposition party and the population as a whole who largely abided by severe lock down policies, aimed not only to flatten the curve but to eliminate the virus. With her empathetic style, whilst not shying away from difficult messages, she inspires trust and confidence. Friedman talks of her 'clear, consistent, simultaneously sobering yet soothing' messages. Ardern connects rationally and emotionally with people and it's working. No prizes for guessing the subject of her degree? Communications. She's a communicator to the core.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader. A great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves." Not only has Ardern successfully led her people to contain the virus, she seems to be bucking the global trend against distrust in government.

So how can leaders communicate, connect and build trust as they lead us into reimagining the future?

By reframing, rethinking, and discovering new possibilities. There are some very tough decisions ahead. Costs need to be cut, sales need to grow, the government support can't go on indefinitely. How can leaders reassure their people? This is a difficult ask when leaders, like everyone else, are feeling worry, uncertainty and fear about coping (or not coping) and, as I heard this week, feeling an 'inner wobbliness'.

Edelman defines trust as 'the inner glue that binds all human and business relationships together'. Trust comes from:

  • Credibility – through the words we use, our credentials, our honesty. We saw this when Tony Blair declared Diana as the 'people's princess' and more recently, Professor Chris Whitty's authentic and searing honesty.
  • Reliability – through our actions, behaviours and keeping to our commitments. Reliable communication is key, whether the 5pm daily update by the UK Government, daily/weekly team meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, or my own daily calls to clients. Commit to timelines, make promises and keep them, and remember to 'communicate, communicate, communicate'.
  • Intimacy – leaders tapping into our emotions, reassuring people that they are safe and secure while embarking on a difficult agenda. Jacinda Ardern introduced the notion of people remaining in a safe household 'bubble' during the lockdown, and Robbie Brozin Co Founder of Nandos, delivered an emotional and inspiring message by video, asking Nando's employees to "Remain at home but enjoy the sun, keep your distance but don't lose touch, and remember that things will get back to normal."
  • Self-orientation – showing that we care, making the focus about others and it's the best interests of others that matter, not ours. Iceland MD Richard Walker decided to put his staff above sales during the lockdown and difficult trading conditions for retailers, also calling for a 'coronavirus minister' to co-ordinate communication between the Government and the food industry. Conversely, we have witnessed the hypocritical behaviours of the Chief Medical Officer in Scotland and now a key government scientific adviser and epidemiologist – both believing that they are above the lockdown measures and demonstrating self-orientation in the extreme.

In summary

Leaders that connect, do so both rationally and emotionally. They are credible, they are reliable, they offer objective and factual information, they bring solutions to the table and combine these with positive messages of hope – and trust!

Emotionally, they're not afraid to show they are human; their humanness. They collaborate, they reach out to others in their network. One of my clients, a CEO in the housing sector, has talked of the power of the 250 UK CEOs in the housing sector collaborating together in phone calls, sharing their thoughts, actions, togetherness.

Great leaders make time to think and manage their own reactions. They invest in themselves, work with their coach or mentors to manage their head and responses, gain clarity and then emotionally connect with the hearts of their people. They know how important it is to be authentic, to share some vulnerability; no good leader needs to be clever or witty or so bold and arrogant as to pretend they know how this is going to turn out. Great leaders take responsibility to bring the hard stuff to the table, to be transparent and find a way to lead beyond this crisis, taking the positives and the learnings from this unimaginable paradigm into the next phase, whether that's elimination of the virus or a vaccine.

There are high expectations for leaders and business to act. Connection, honesty and trust will keep people pulling together to survive the current climate and position the business to emerge better and stronger. Nobody can expect life-long guarantees, but what people do expect of leaders is that they can be trusted to respond effectively, communicate and take appropriate action to protect their employees and communities. Surely that's not too much to ask?