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What We Learned From How Great Organizations Communicated Through COVID-19

Denison, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in culture and leadership solutions, began to collect data using their Resilience Survey. The Resilience Survey measures how well an organization is prepared to meet a crisis head on and come out stronger. By the end of May over thirty organizations and thousands of employees had participated giving Denison some great insights to how organizations were adapting amid the Covid-19 crisis. One key attribute employees described where leaders excelled as the crisis began to unfold was how effective the communication was. Furthermore, it was broken down into three key elements: Timing (the regularity of communication), Transparency, and quality.

Why was communication important? Because communicating to employees provides certainty. When there is no communication, uncertainty enters the equation. In this case, uncertainty was disguised as fear. Will I have a job? How will I pay my bills? Will I get sick? All of this creates a lot of anxiety! Add to that, there were a lot of things coming at leaders all at once: shifting office work from onsite to teleworking, CDC guidelines, PPE supplies, new processes and policies to keep people safe. All of this came down to leadership and what they needed to do to get out in front of their people. This was critical. One exec of a large family owned business told me, “I don’t want to be the generation that loses a fourth generation business.”

So as you step back from the thousands of comments coming out of the resilience survey, it was clear organizations were communicating at a high level. The following are the key elements any great leader can apply and bounce forward.

Timing (Regular Communication)

Communicating through Covid-19 was definitely not a time to give people information on a “need-to-know-basis” or hoard information for the sake of power. Even organizations would may traditional been poor at communicating with employees were forced to do so to get important CDC safety practices and guidelines out to their people. Therefore, the leadership at most companies were thrust out in front of employees at least once if not twice a week. The comments from the Denison Resilience Survey found people felt comfort seeing their leaders regularly. It reduced fear and uncertainty.

In addition, you began to see quick hit huddles or “standups” remotely. HR was conducting one-on-one check-ins for those who needed it. There were town-halls being conducted through Zoom or GoTo meeting. There were Zoom happy hours and one company provided humorous videos weekly from the leadership team on things happening around the business. All designed to lighten things up. But, if the stress was too much, many companies were offering mental health days. One employee summed it up, “Leadership communicated clearly and often. Doubling the company-wide staff meetings has meant we're more in touch than ever, in some ways. It also eased fears of layoffs with a clear POV and plan was great leadership.”

Bounce This Forward: There is one thing for certain that no organization ever went out of business from over communicating. From the comments in the Resilience Survey, employees pointed to the level of communication taking place as one of the best things the organizations did during the crisis. As a leader, get out and get face time with your people. Schedule regular meetings with your entire staff, not just your direct reports. People need direction. Be there leader as well as their boss!

Transparency in Your Communication

Whether it was about the number of cases of Covid-19 infecting employees or the state of the business, leaders have been out there talking with people, alleviating fears, and showing people the way forward. One employee stated when asked about what his organization did well during the crisis, responded “Transparency, leadership and efficiency. I have been blown away by our leadership team throughout this experience.” Employees were really surprised how just average communication suddenly became well thought, detailed, no sugar-coating information. Why does this matter? It was all about reducing uncertainty. As a leader, if you allow uncertainty to take over, it will run rough shod on your organization and literally kill morale. So, the more the leaders were able to get out in front of employees and talk about the viability and future of the organization, the less stressed the workforce became.

One employees said, “I loved hearing that leadership's #1 goal is to make sure we all keep our jobs, and then they showed us the plan for exactly how that would happen.” The key is the last part of the sentence. Anyone can say, “Your jobs are safe.” But, without a plan it leaves employees looking around at the news channels, the rumor mill, other organizations in the area and think the leadership team may be blowing smoke. Right? But following up with a well thought-out plan gives the employees insurances that leadership has things under control and is moving in the right direction. The bottom line is this is “Leadership out front” leading.

Bounce This Forward: The high performing cultures who conducted the resilience survey were transparent with their information. Some employees would say they over communicated. They gave detailed accounts of the state and direction of the organization. This isn’t something that is unique to Covid-19, though. If you’ve heard employees say your organization lacks communication. They don’t mean we need a company newsletter, they are looking for leaders who are straight shoots who give good, well-though, honest information. Give it to them straight. They can take it.

Quality of Information

Another key learning from how organizations communicated through the pandemic was the quality of information. We couldn’t just give people the WHAT anymore, we need to give them the WHY and the HOW, as well. With the type of safety information that needed to get to people, there was no room for error, bad information or being vague. One employee said, “I'm proud of the way our company has adapted quickly, providing not only updates to our staff but also the rationale and background behind the decisions being made (e.g. pay raises). I believe that has actually helped establish a heightened sense of camaraderie across the organization ("we are in this together"), perhaps even more so than before COVID-19.” As this person states, the rationale is a key part of any communication formula that is often left out. If you can plug it back into the formula, you’ll be communicating like a pro!

Bounce this Forward: When I coach leaders I refer to communication as a formula: WHAT – WHY = Rumor Mill. The purpose is to make the leader aware of what happens if they don’t give their employees the whole picture when giving direction or communicating. I always set the WHAT at 100% as that is the piece of information I am give this person. Now, if I only give the person 10% of the WHY my formula becomes WHAT (100%) – WHY (10%) = 90% in the rumor mill. Therefore, if I am unclear with what I am communicating I leave way too much uncertainty and ambiguity, which means my employees have to, in a sense, fill in the blanks of what I am trying to communicate. Those blanks are rarely filled in with positive thoughts! To communicate the whole picture, you want the WHY at 100% or close to it.

As You Bounce Forward

What transpired this Spring is something none of us could have expected. When we had to change and adapt, we did so. As we move toward normalcy (whatever that looks like), there are probably many things we will need to leave behind. But there are perhaps many other things we learned about ourselves that we can bring forward, such as new ways of communicating with our employees. Communicating with employees is vital and we now know what good communicating looks like. By providing regular information that is transparent and answers the why behind the what, we can reduce uncertainty in the workplace and keep everyone’s fears at bay.

About the Business:
Denison’s mission is to boost the performance of organizations by improving their corporate culture and leadership. Beginning in 1998, Denison’s global practice grew from a set of diagnostic assessments, rooted in research linking organizational culture and leadership to business performance. Their global team builds on this base of expertise to provide a full-range of transformation services designed to deliver impact to clients..

About the Author:
Jay Richards ( is a member of the founding team at Denison, a firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, specializing in corporate culture and leadership development. For 20 years, Jay has worked with manufacturing firms in improving their culture and leadership.

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Delaney McKinleyVice President of Membership, Marketing & Events
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