How Leaders Can Use Communication to Build Trust During a Crisis

Master crisis leadership with effective communication strategies.

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Dear reader,

During a crisis, the role of internal communication by management cannot be overemphasised.

Effective communication is the foundation on which trust, stability and resilience are built within an organisation.

In this edition of the Wag The Dog newsletter, I’ll focus on the most important aspects of internal communication for leaders during a crisis.

I look forward to reading your comments and feedback!

PS: for more on the overall importance of internal communication during crisis situation, check out my previous article here.

Table of Contents

Leadership during a crisis

Leadership in crisis situations requires a balance of visibility, action, and communication.

It is important that the leader is present and approachable and provides a consistent and reassuring presence for their teams. Visibility demonstrates commitment and builds trust, which is critical to maintaining morale in a crisis.

However, visibility alone is not enough.

Leaders must also take meaningful action to manage the crisis and support their team. Decisive, well thought-out actions that lead to visible progress and tangible solutions are key to maintaining trust and stability.

Effective communication is also crucial.

Clear, transparent and empathetic communication keeps the team informed, addresses their concerns and provides honest information during the crisis.

"Faced with crisis, a person of character falls back on themselves. They impose their own stamp of action, take responsibility for it, and make it their own."

Charles de Gaulle, Former President of France

Timely and accurate communication

By keeping your team clearly and accurately informed about how the situation is developing, you ensure that the information is factual and up-to-date, which is essential for maintaining trust.

Without timely information, misinformation and rumours can spread, making crisis management more difficult.

To build trust, managers must provide information promptly and accurately. This not only reassures employees, but also helps to maintain their commitment and morale.

Clear, consistent communication minimises disruption and ensures that employees understand their roles so that the business remains stable even in difficult times.

Credibility and transparency

It's crucial that you show your vulnerability while maintaining a confident and assured demeanour. Being honest about what you know and what you don't know will build trust and reduce uncertainty.

Messages should be clear, simple and free of jargon so that all employees understand the situation and their role. Consistent communication across all channels is important; inconsistent messages can undermine trust and create unnecessary uncertainty.

Communicating your messages confidently and authentically will build trust and credibility and ensure that employees respond favourably to leadership.

Empathy and respect

Recognise the challenges your team is facing and offer emotional support. Take their concerns seriously and remain professional. Understanding and responding to employees' emotions can help manage stress and maintain morale.

Empathy means recognising the emotional state of others and responding with compassion. Managers should actively listen to their employees, recognise their concerns and view situations from their perspective.

Formulate messages with empathy and respect to ensure they are received and understood in the intended way.

"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."

Thomas Jefferson

A balance between vulnerability and confidence

Admit your own doubts and insecurities, but convey a sense of strength and determination to successfully navigate the crisis. Being honest about your limitations and mistakes will build trust and credibility with employees.

At the same time, you convey confidence in your ability to lead the organisation through the crisis. Describe the steps you are taking to find answers and show that you are capable of overcoming challenges.

This balance of vulnerability and confidence provides stability and reassures employees that the leadership is in control.

During the pandemic, frequent ethical leadership vacuums were observed. Based on these findings, a conceptual framework for ethical-political leadership for effective crisis management was developed.1 

Communicating uncertainty and shaping messages

If you know how to frame your message, you can ensure that it is received and understood as intended. Be clear about what is known and what is unknown and manage expectations honestly to reduce anxiety and uncertainty. Explain the steps being taken to find answers and resolve the crisis.

Phrase your messages with compassion and care, conveying the seriousness of the crisis situation while explaining the actions being taken to resolve the issue.

This approach helps to focus on constructive solutions and avoid unnecessary panic and confusion.

Leadership behaviour in a crisis

Crisis-appropriate leadership behaviour includes remaining calm under pressure, adapting strategies quickly when the situation changes and facing challenges with determination.

Trust in leadership is crucial in a crisis, as it helps to maintain stability and trust within the organisation.

Research indicates that female leaders often managed the COVID-19 crisis more effectively. Key contributing factors included their prompt response and effective communication.2 

A confident leader can lead their team effectively through uncertain situations and give them a sense of direction and security. Confidence combined with realism is more effective than overconfidence, which can lead to a loss of credibility in difficult situations.

What do you think? 

How do you prepare your leadership in the context of crisis communications?

References and further reading.

1  Yeo, J., & Jeon, S. (2021). Leading Amid Pandemic: Conceptual Framework on Ethical-Political Leadership for Crisis Management. Public Integrity.

2  Koh Siew Len, J., Tajuddin, D., Uji Mohammed, R., Paulus Jidwin, A., & David, J. (2022). Women’s Effective Leadership Roles during the Covid-19 Pandemic Crisis: Truth or Fable? 14th GCBSS Proceeding 2022, 14(2), 1–1.

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