Since March of 2020, when the first stay-at-home orders were being issued within the U.S., Americans have been waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to get under control, whether by a decrease in cases via safety measures or more people receiving vaccines. However, after a brief period of hopefulness, vaccination rates are not what they could be, and we now find ourselves more or less back to where we were during the worst of the pandemic last winter. With organizations cancelling their plans to return to the office or setting up hybrid workplaces, and people’s hopes for a semblance of normalcy dashed, we are having to face an uncomfortable truth: that we are not so much in an era of a “new normal,” but an era of indefinite uncertainty.
Unfortunately, humans don’t enjoy uncertainty. In fact, we dislike it so much that we find uncertainty even more stressful than knowing, with certainty, that something bad will happen. When uncertainty gets prolonged, it can lead to chronic stress, which hampers people’s ability to communicate. This presents a real challenge because in times like these, it becomes all the more important to communicate effectively, both formally and informally. Since each organization is unique, there can be no magic bullet or universal solution; but there are some useful generalities that can safely apply to everyone.
Don’t wait around for further training or guidance
Despite the greater urgency and need for good communication, there are entire groups of management that don’t know how to go about motivating frustrated and confused employees during this period. This points to a problem that predates the pandemic, which is that many organizations don’t necessarily provide their managers with enough training (or any training at all). For instance, according to microlearning platform, Grovo, 87% of mid-level managers wish that they had gotten more training when they first became managers, and 98% feel, in general, they just need more training. Ironically, at the same time, managers themselves can sometimes be resistant to receiving more education and training because they assume that their past successes indicate future success.
However, while it would be ideal for organizations to provide guidance and training, if you’re a manager it would be a mistake to sit around and wait for that to happen anytime soon. Instead, be proactive. Look into the things that you can do on your own, and do them, right here and now. If you’ve never consciously set out to get better at change management, for example, now’s the time. Start by reading one of the more well-regarded books on the subject, such as You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most, or Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Think long and hard about your strengths and weaknesses as a manager, as these will point you toward the kind of self-educational materials you should seek out.
Acknowledge all parties’ emotions
During any protracted period of change or turmoil, it’s always helpful to anchor communication in acknowledgement. Start by accepting and acknowledging any and all employees’ feelings, concerns, and frustrations. Emotional validation helps people stay in a positive mindset and can be more conducive toward problem-solving, whereas invalidation tends to have the opposite effect. This is just as true in a workplace context as it is in friendship, marriage, and family.
Since communication is a two-way street, managers should try to minimize the negative impact that their own stress may be having on their communication skills. Part of this process should include examining, acknowledging, and communicating their own feelings. Managers’ ability to inspire and motivate employees in the face of indefinite uncertainty will depend a great deal on leadership authenticity; and employees’ perceptions of their leaders’ authenticity is significantly shaped by the level of self-awareness their leaders are able to exhibit. In turn, there is no better way to display self-awareness than by communicating one’s own experiences, thoughts, feelings, and values. If, for example, managers find themselves struggling with the current uncertainty just as much as their employees, they should share this as part of the process of validating their employees’ feelings. Far from coming across as weak or unreliable, this will go a long way towards cementing that sense of authentic leadership.
Conduct an energy audit
Another general principle for managers to consider: Do an audit of where their time and energy are going. Your calendar will show you what you are currently prioritizing, and it will not deceive you. We’ve written before about how, during the early waves of the pandemic, it was all many organizations and managers could do to just stay afloat. Poor communication during the earlier parts of the pandemic was understandable, at least, if not entirely forgivable, from the perspective of the employees who had to suffer as a result. Roughly half of all employees are planning on leaving their jobs this year, mainly due to the lack of communication.
For this reason, most managers would do well to analyze how much of their time is spent on communication. Since many managers find communicating with their employees to be difficult or uncomfortable, it’s likely that they aren’t spending enough time on it. While it’s impossible to provide an exact formula (e.g., “spend 75% of your time communicating”), a good general principle to keep in mind is, during periods of extended uncertainty, it’s very difficult to communicate “too much.” In fact, for most managers, it’s probably only when it feels like they’re communicating too much that they’re actually communicating enough.
While there are many things that managers can do to lead and motivate their employees amid ongoing uncertainty, you really cannot go wrong with the handful of principles here, as they are universal and can hold true in many situations. Managers who apply them with sincere effort may find employees responding positively on a scale proportional to the amount of effort invested.
Rebecca Weintraub, PhD is a emerita clinical professor of communication and emerita director of the online master of communication management program at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
Steven Lewis is a renowned entertainment industry strategist and news and documentary Emmy winner. Their book, InCredible Communication, to release in 2022, that brings the combined experience of more than 75 years of real-world, evidence-based knowledge to the art of effective business communication.