President Donald Trump and others have likened the coronavirus pandemic to fighting a war.
As someone who studies how leaders communicate, I believe that’s an apt description. But the president isn’t the only general in this battle. America’s CEOs also have important leadership roles to play as the crisis poses a test of their ability to help their workers not only endure and stay healthy but keep them motivated and engaged as well.
What’s the best way to do that?
To find an answer, I reviewed 21 academic studies on executive leadership communication and conducted a textual analysis of 12 industry studies related to organizational and leadership communication during the pandemic.
I discovered five key themes that may provide some insights for how CEOs should communicate with their employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Be transparent
Transparency requires leaders to openly and proactively share relevant information to employees in a timely, frequent and digestible manner; give accurate information regarding what is happening, what the impact is and how the company is handling it; and offer clear guidance on what workers should be doing.
In a video message to the employees, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson demonstrated this when he didn’t try to sugarcoat the losses his company has suffered in the crisis.
2. Convey authenticity
While CEOs are wired to take action, tough times like the pandemic cast monumental challenges to leading an organization. In an era where uncertainties outweigh the certainties, sometimes they simply don’t know what to do.
That’s okay. CEOs that authentically share vulnerability can actually demonstrate the human side of leadership. Employees look up to leaders for assurance and support. They do not necessarily expect CEOs to be superheroes.
To communicate in an authentic manner, CEOs should stay true to their values and beliefs and keep their promises. They need to also be self-aware of what they’re capable of, and genuine in their communication with employees – even when they don’t know what’s going on.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, exhibited this trait when he acknowledged to employees, “There is no instruction manual for how to feel at a time like this,” and added his own list of worries, such as the safety of his family and colleagues.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos conveyed authenticity in his letter to employees.
3. Show empathy
The value of empathy was perhaps the most recurring theme in my analysis of best practices.
In my own recent study that examined leadership communication during a planned organizational change – such as a merger – I found that communicating with empathy enhanced employee trust and drove commitment and acceptance to that change.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses similar challenges because employees face enormous uncertainties and unpleasant emotions, such as fear, sadness, anxiety and frustration. CEOs can help reduce worker anxiety and form a bond with them by showing sympathy and standing in their shoes.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella demonstrated this and emphasized the value of empathy in his message to employees, urging them to show “understanding for each other’s situations.”
4. Put people first
The novel coronavirus is hammering companies’ bottom lines, from productivity to profits. CEOs that put employees’ safety and health first are demonstrating their humanity.
This people-centered mindset is crucial for the organization’s survival and long-term development as employees are the backbone of the organization and eventually create the organization’s competitive advantage.
We have seen many examples of this during the current crisis, such as the CEOs of Bank of America, Citigroup, FedEx and Visa pledging not to lay off any workers as a result of the pandemic.
5. Demonstrate optimism
Conveying positivity or optimism is an especially important leadership quality during challenging times, when it is easy for people to experience negative feelings and frustrations. Leaders who portray an optimistic outlook in the tone of their communications and foster positive thinking motivate and inspire employees.
A good example of this is Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, who wrote a letter to employees encouraging them to focus on the crisis’ silver lining.
“One of the things motivating me through this difficult time is the idea that we can learn and adapt and adjust so we emerge stronger as a result of this test,” he wrote. The crisis “will pass. We will get through this together and be a better and stronger company as a result of it.”
And at my own school, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs reminded students and staff of their “tradition of pulling together and rising to meet major challenges with optimism and determination.”
During extraordinary times like the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders need effective communication skills like these to instill trust, confidence and hope in their workers – essential ingredients to winning the war.