by Mark Goulston, MD, and Diana Hendel, PharmD, of “Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side“
When a crisis or major disruption hits your company — an act of workplace violence, a sexual harassment lawsuit, the death of a leader, or, say, the fallout of a global pandemic — the effects on employees can be truly dire. In many cases, they don’t just suffer from stress but from trauma, which is a whole different animal. And if leaders don’t handle things right from the beginning, your organization can sustain long term cultural damage.
So what does “handle things right” look like? In a word, communication.
When communication falters after a traumatic event it stokes confusion and distrust in employees. It creates a void they tend to fill with their own fear-driven narratives.
What happens next is predictable, say the authors. Without a strong leadership presence informing people, easing fears, and sending unifying messages, employees may become aggressive, belligerent, withdrawn, or “difficult” in other ways. (This is the trauma talking.) Eventually, they will split off into factions. The organization will become divided on what needs to happen next, and eventually, deeply polarized.
All of this is why times of crisis call for a quick and clear response from leaders.
Frequent, real-time, transparent communication minimizes confusion and uncertainty, which is often the root cause of anxiety. It helps people understand why you’re asking them to do things so they’re more likely to comply. Plus, communicating well in times of crisis deepens trust and confidence in leadership. It also creates a sense of hope that can keep people going through incredibly tough times.
Leaders often assume they’ve communicated clearly and well. This is rarely the case. It’s not just about checking off boxes. It’s not even just about making sure people understand what you say. It’s about making sure they engage emotionally with your message and act on it.
In good times and especially in bad times, leaders need a system to ensure that leader communication happens regularly, consistently, and effectively. Here are a few tips, excerpted from our book “Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side“, to help you reduce chaos, ambiguity, and uncertainty, and build camaraderie, steadiness, reliability, teamwork, and coordination. (You’ll note they’re structured under the acronym V.I.T.A.L. to make them easier to remember.)
- Don’t hide behind a spokesperson. It’s okay to delegate the communication function, but make sure messages come from you as the leader or incident commander.
- Communicate as quickly as possible, even if you don’t yet have all the information. Communicate what is known but also clarify what isn’t yet known. “Here’s what we don’t know yet. We will share it with the organization as soon as we do know.”
- Don’t overwhelm people with everything there is to say. People don’t have the bandwidth to process it all. Figure out what info is essential and share that.
- Be consistent. Establish regular frequency for updates and communicate the schedule so people know when to “tune in.”
“In it Together”:
- Always link communication back to your mission, vision, and values. As you set goals and share updates and wins, do it within the framework of where you’re going as an organization. (This provides a sense of stability as well as meaning and purpose.)
- Empathy is critical. Encouragement and positivity matter, but resist telling people to get over it or “buck up.” Seek to understand how people are feeling without judgment.
- Center messaging on the theme that we’re all “in it together.” This allows for acknowledgement of people’s fears, worries, and anxieties as expected and normal. It’s fine for leaders to express their own fears. This conveys a sense of authenticity and humility.
- Resist all temptation to blame or finger-point, to create an “us vs. them” mentality. If you see this happening, firmly denounce it.
- Help all employees understand the external environment. People may not always know what’s going on. Don’t assume that they do.
- Tackle rumors head on. Seek out “elephants in the room” and address them. For example, call out any fears about the future that you know or even suspect people are feeling.
- Share bad news the minute you have it. Knowing what’s happening is always better than not knowing. This kind of news (losses, layoffs, etc.) must come from the CEO. You cannot delegate it.
- Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” but follow up with how you’ll find out and when you’ll convey the answer to them.
- Use all modalities (video, email, intranet, text, in-person town hall and in-person on units if these can be done safely) to convey messages from the senior leader. When not possible to be visible in person, connect employees to senior leaders virtually via live stream.
- If you haven’t held town halls in the past, implement them now. Whether you conduct them virtually or live, this is a great opportunity for the leader to convey confidence and provide information, but also show humility, impart gratitude, and convey openness.
- Let people know where they can go to get individualized help. Do everything you can to reduce the stigma of seeking help when it is needed.
- Emphasize your open-door policy if you have one. Make sure people know you and other leaders are available for one-on-one conversations if an employee has a concern.
(This is the fifth letter in the acronym, but it’s actually the most important piece of the communication formula!)
- Ask questions and leave room for inquiry. Resist the temptation to just listen for what you want to hear. It’s easy to echo all good news, and/or avoid bad news, but your job is to hear and deal with the hard stuff too.
- If you hear a criticism (overt or implied) or tough feedback, don’t jump to defend yourself. It’s hard to keep listening, but this is where it really counts.
- Acknowledge what you hear—pain, fear, anger, anxiety—without diminishing or dismissing it.
- There is often wisdom in the resistance, a reason behind even the most hostile question. Try to understand where people are coming from. What can you learn from this pushback? Could you be wrong? Are you missing something? Is there a better way?
Sooner or later, every organization will be touched by trauma of some kind. How leaders handle it will determine what the future looks like. Having a great communication plan will help sustain you through hardships and crises, and it will keep operations flowing smoothly and people open and engaged the rest of the time.
As the CEO of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Diana Hendel led one of the largest acute care, trauma, and teaching hospital complexes on the West Coast.
Dr. Mark Goulston is a board-certified psychiatrist, fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA-NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. He is the creator of Theory Y Executive Coaching that he provides to CEOs, presidents, founders, and entrepreneurs, and is a TEDx and international keynote speaker.
They are co-authors of “Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption (and Thriving on the Other Side)“, which is available from major online booksellers.