Employees are likely concerned about the company’s future and their own. They are also likely looking to their chief executive for a sense of how prepared their company is to weather the storm.
The CEO’s role here is to be as transparent as possible, and to remind employees that their contributions are valued in general, but especially right now.
A communications consultancy company and a Harvard Business School professor were asked how CEOs should craft a message to employees that both inspires and assuages fear. Here’s what they said:
Remind employees why they come to work every day
Purpose is a powerful way to motivate employees especially during periods of uncertainty.
“People don’t come to work just because they earn a wage,” said Sunil Gupta, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “They do it because they have a sense of purpose that what they’re doing actually makes a difference.”
Any message from the CEO should remind employees how they’re contributing to the company’s broader mission. That’s especially true, Gupta said, at large companies where the CEO gets to meet only a fraction of the staff personally, meaning everyone else might feel somewhat disconnected from the mission.
“How do you inspire the rest of the organisation?” Gupta said. “Purpose becomes that much more important to drive every person in the same direction.”
Chart the path ahead
Especially during a crisis, employees will be curious to know how leadership is thinking about the future. In the Harvard Business Review, management professors Brooks Holtom and Amy Edmondson and TINYPulse CEO David Niu write that leaders should clearly communicate their plans and how they came up with those plans.
“Emphasise what is going well for the organisation,” the authors write. “Share as much as you can about your strategy and planning for the future.” And be sure to tell employees how they can submit feedback or questions about the changes.
Tell employees about changes in strategy before you tell the general public
Your employees should know about changes in the company’s strategy before anyone else does. After all, they’re the people on the ground, responsible for executing leadership’s vision.
“The members and customers can follow after that,” said Mackenzie Long, director at Evergreen Strategy Group, a communications consultancy that helps business leaders craft and articulate their policies. “But ensuring that you are effectively reaching and talking to your people has been really powerful” in her experience.
Employees also recognise when their leaders’ laudatory descriptions of the company culture don’t match reality, for example, if leadership publicly extols the values of an equitable workplace while many of their employees feel overlooked.
Employees “are seeing what’s happening internally,” Long said. “They’re going to suss out pretty quickly if you’re standing out in front of a policy or supporting something that’s going to be affirmative for them, but not actually following through on the internal side of things.”
Make sure your internal and external messaging match up
Avoid discordance in your corporate communications. Your business should stand for the same principles, regardless of the audience.
“Employees need to hear the same messages that you send out to the marketplace,” Colin Mitchell, who previously worked at the marketing and advertising agency Ogilvy, writes in the Harvard Business Review. “At most companies, however, internal and external communications are often mismatched.”
Mitchell writes that “the most common and effective way to link internal and external marketing campaigns is to create external advertising that targets both audiences.” A leader might, for example, send a notice to customers describing the company’s new direction. You can be pretty certain that both customers and employees will see it. This strategy “signals transparency,” Mitchell writes, with “the same message going out to both audiences.”
A crisis, while disorienting, can be an opportunity to remind all stakeholders what your business stands for and to get them excited about helping fulfil that mission.