If there’s one bright spot amidst the dark days of 2020, it’s the way leaders have stepped up to communicate with employees. I’ve seen so many examples of leaders who have been present, authentic and consistent in their communication. In fact, many have been practicing the best communication of their careers.

The challenge now is not only to keep communicating—but to continue to enhance the ways leaders communicate. As we all well know, trying times are far from over. Many organizations still face tough decisions. And employees’ stress levels continue to be off the charts.

That’s why leaders can’t rest. They need to keep being visible, relatable and real. It takes a lot of energy, for sure, but the result—better employee morale and engagement—is worth the effort. Here are three examples of how leaders have stepped up their communication:

  • A senior living community CEO did away with his usual formal tone and instead is sending heartfelt, empathetic messages to employees.
  • A pharmaceutical CEO replaced global town halls with small-group Q&A sessions where he takes the time to hear what was on employees’ minds.
  • The executive team at a healthcare company has implemented several listening techniques (focus groups, listening tours, Yammer group) to understand employee perspectives about key issues.

How can you help your leader rise to the occasion? Coach leaders to:

1. Be authentic
Employees want senior leaders who are genuine; not corporate suits who recite words from a piece of paper. The most effective leaders build trust by relating to employees, usually by showing vulnerability.

This is hard for leaders because they’ve gotten really good at adopting a calm, unruffled, never-them-see-you-sweat communication approach. And, especially in public companies, leaders are used to deliver scripted points in a persuasive and consistent way.

Unfortunately, that polished persona is not what employees need now. This is an emotional time for most people. Employees naturally want to have confidence in leaders—and to know that leaders care. So leaders need to:

  • Be conversational
  • Tell personal stories
  • Listen very carefully when employees ask questions or make comments
  • Give the straight story, providing specifics
  • If you don’t have an answer, say so—then commit to providing the information when available

2. Encourage interaction
Remember in-person meetings? Designed correctly, those sessions were great for gathering feedback, generating ideas and connecting team members.

But now leaders need to find new ways to encourage interaction. That means scheduling sessions in a variety of formats that not only engage employees, but also give them a place to share their thoughts about what’s going on in the organization.

The best practice is to use a variety of formats—small groups conversations, medium-sized meetings and organization-wide forums (like town halls)—to encourage more interaction. For example:

  • Invite a small number of employees (say, 8) to a 20-minute coffee chat
  • Carve out weekly virtual office hours in which anyone can “knock on your door” to chat
  • Build interaction into large-group forums. For example, polls work well to break the ice and chat gives shy employees a chance to comment or ask questions. 
  • Use a social media platform to allow employees to submit questions whenever they want

3. Inspire and motivate
I admit there’s a lot packed into this one—after all, motivating people is the most difficult and complex part of a leader’s job. So let’s focus on one thing every leader can do to be more inspiring: tell stories.

The late David Armstrong, CEO of Armstrong Industries, wrote that he discovered stories were very effective to build enthusiasm and “help people discover something about themselves that they would have otherwise missed through a boring flow chart or company memo.”

Storytelling wasn’t just an avocation for Armstrong; he could point to years of evidence demonstrating how the practice helped employees be more receptive to change and more willing to do things differently. After all, stories are appropriate to any demographic and an effective technique for empowering people.

The best way to encourage leaders in your organization to get started with stories? Share what’s going on in their lives, both on the job and personally. Then use Armstrong’s formula for shaping the story:

  • The story must be true. (Verify all facts.)
  • Stick to one idea or theme.
  • Keep the story short. You should be able to tell it in under two minutes.
  • Use people’s names.
  • Be specific and form a mental picture.
  • Even if the moral of the story seems self-evident, be explicit about the message you’re trying to get across.

There’s no doubt that a new approach to leadership is still needed to face the challenges that still lie ahead. But leaders have shown they can rise to the challenge. Now they just having to keep up the good work.

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