How Should We Communicate With Our Teams In a Crisis?

Interview with Communication Expert Brandon Joel

There’s no question: we’re living in anxious times. The emotions felt by most Americans right now come to an interesting cross-section of daily life, employment, health, and financial security coming to a head. Some are even calling what individuals are experiencing as the Anxiety Pandemic–a result of overwhelming fear caused by the impending job loss, illness without adequate healthcare, or both. And that fear is not unfounded: 22 Million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March, the media is releasing staggering lists of well-known companies laying off their workers, and the companies left will turn strategies once deemed unusual into normal business practices. 


How to Lead in this New World

Depending on how you look at it, we’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. What are we to do, as leaders, managers, and teammates? Those of us fortunate to still hold management positions at our respective companies have an inseparable burden: On one hand, we’re expected as teams, companies, and organizations to perform or produce at a level that gets us through this phase of the crisis. On the other hand, managers are responsible for navigating understandably anxious employees’ emotions and being respectful of their space as they process this crisis. All this, on top of navigating the world of remote work and managing a team of employees from afar, presents a challenge to team communication.

As a manager with extra time on my hands since becoming home-bound, I’ve been pondering questions around these concepts. It’s important to me that these get answered with substance, so I called in Communication Expert and Speech Team Director at Cornell University Brandon Joel to help me out.

Interview with Brandon Joel

JH: How can we communicate effectively during a crisis while a team is mostly or entirely working from home?

BJ: I think to establish effective communication practices for remote teams, you have to start with each individual. Everybody is going to have different circumstances. Someone will have dogs and kids running around the house; others will have spotty internet. To establish what’s going to work for the collective, the team needs to be AWARE of individual circumstances that may impact work performance or output. Once conditions are known, the team must work together to build a plan that works best for everyone. Being honest about individual circumstances can be difficult, but if everyone is willing to be a little vulnerable, it will help create trust amongst the team. This trust is the foundation for the team to construct a working communication model that is effective for everyone. 


JH: What do you feel is the best way to communicate organization goals with teams while allowing space to feel the anxiety of a crisis?

BJ: Organizations first need to recognize what information/goals need to be communicated to employees. Excess information can give individuals more things they feel they need to process or deal with. If organizations are aware that employees may be under duress, they should prioritize information that directly impacts their employees and the mission of the organization. They should give the employees goals/information that focuses on how it impacts their individual work function. Managers should be mindful not to put the burden an organization may be facing on the individual. While it is important to be aware of what is happening with the organization, the focus should be on how the individual can contribute. If you break organization goals into individual objectives, it will allow the employee to process and engage in a way that is most comfortable to them. 


JH: How much space should managers make for fear or emotions in the workplace?

BJ: While deadlines are important, organizations need to recognize that it’s going to take TIME for people to process how they feel. Not everyone processes emotions in the same way or at the same time, much less grief. Recognizing that early will allow managers the opportunity to plan how to customize a plan for their team. While professionalism requires us to distance our emotions from the workplace. During a crisis, it will be hard to separate the two. So managers should create two separate spaces. One where the team has the space to express how they feel. Second, one that works to optimize the pre-established working space the team already had. When managers create space for people’s emotions, they will feel heard and will not have to neglect their emotional or professional feelings. During crisis, there has to be room for both, it’s up to managers to create that dynamic. 


JH: We’ve seen organizations handle this crisis differently, with some being more transparent about their financial situation and others not sharing any information at all. What do you think is the best way for companies and their leadership to communicate with teams for this crisis?

BJ: Companies need to be transparent to the degree that an employee knows how they could be potentially impacted. While we don’t want to fear-monger, giving employees an idea of how organizational challenges might impact their lives gives them an opportunity to prepare. Employees should have an overview of what’s happening, but don’t necessarily need to know specifics. More details without executive knowledge or context leave room for people to fill in the blanks, which can lead to people inducing unnecessary fear. 


JH: How can those in management roles best support their employees one on one?

BJ: Managers need to create a space where employees can be heard and validated. The focus should be on nourishing the employee as an individual. This requires the manager to understand what the employee’s personal goals are and how the company can help them develop professionally. It’s up to the manager to figure out how to merge the personal goals of the employee with company objectives. If they cultivated this dynamic in their relationship, the employee would be more likely to come to the manager on what they need to be supported. 


JH: Thanks so much, Brandon! If people want to learn more about your work, where can they find you?

BJ: They can find and connect with me on LinkedIn.


Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

Key Takeaways

Thanks to Brandon, we now have clarity around the best ways to communicate. Here’s what I find to be most apparent:

  1. No matter what’s going on, people must be more important than productivity
  2. We get a unique opportunity to develop our people through this crisis and beyond it.
  3. We can make better decisions for communication in a crisis if we know what our people value before the crisis.
  4. We should focus on communicating context, not necessarily details, to increase understanding between management and employees.
  5. There’s a lot of opportunity for brands that are forward-thinking and preparing for what the new normal of organizational communication will look like. 


There you have it! This is undoubtedly a difficult situation for anyone in a leadership or management position. Hopefully, Brandon’s thoughts provide more insight into how you can lead your team, company, or organization in a more empathetic and responsible way. 

One thing is certain: things will be different once we’re through this. The organizations that thrive will be the ones that foster connections with their people today to build a stronger workforce tomorrow.

Brandon Joel is a Communication Expert and Director of the competitive Speech Team at Cornell University. He holds an M.A. in Public Advocacy from Hofstra University and is currently pursuing an M.P.S in Global Development at Cornell University. You can connect with him on LinkedIn for more tips on Communication, Public Speaking, and Personal Branding.

Jamie E. Hammond is a Social Media Manager by day and Indoor Cycling Instructor by midday. She sleeps at night. She is a competitively trained public speaker and holds a B.S. in Sociology from Bradley University. Her interests include: learning about what makes people commit to their workplace, her husband, her fur-babies (dogs), and her feather-babies (chickens). Join the mailing list.


New Leader? Three Steps to Make a Quick, Lasting Impact

Your first two weeks are the most important to the relationship with your team.

Whether you’ve found yourself managing a team or a leader of one, you may have a lot of concerns running through your mind:

“What if I’m a bad leader?”

“Will they like me?”

“What if they’re bad employees?”

“What if they don’t listen to me?”

And while you probably wouldn’t dare repeat those worries to anyone else, hearing these voices is, in my opinion, bound to happen at some point in a change to your leadership status. Working with a new team always comes with its stresses and fears. You don’t know what your team dynamic is going to be and you don’t know how you’ll bet manage them. If you’re new to leadership, those voices are all the more loud and frightening.

Fortunately, these are the three tried-and-true steps I’ve started with each time I’ve started leading a new team.

Step 1: Set an Initial One-on-One Meeting With Every Member of Your Team

First, carve out time (no matter how difficult) to set a one-on-one meeting with every member of our team within the first two weeks of entering your role. One-on-ones are your best leadership tool as meaningful connection is deeply important for any modern-age employee. Gen Z wants human interaction woven into the workplace. Millennials want work that fulfills them. The only way you’ll be able to make these connections and understand what fulfills your employees is if you ask–in a safe place, free of distraction.

Often, when I suggest regular one-on-ones to a leader, they tell me it’s too much of a time suck to be sustainable. I believe One-on-Ones are where the magic happens for you and your team. If leadership is important to you, this is an experience you must not miss.

Step 2: Identify What Moves Each Person

Millennials aren’t the only ones who want their work to be fulfilling. Americans generally spend more time in the workplace than we do at home. Therefore, no matter what profession we’ve chosen for ourselves, it behooves us to seek some fulfillment in the 40+ hours we choose to spend in the office. Leaders have a responsibility to (and an interest in) seek out opportunities for our people that allow them to grow and thrive–rather than expecting our people to assume their regular responsibilities with grit and a smile.

Start learning about your people and identify what gets them out of bed in the morning. Do they love helping others? Are they driven by connecting with their teammates? Do they love making an impact on their clients? May they want to eventually be leaders themselves? Do they enjoy the journey more than the destination? Do they prefer problem-solving and critical thinking?

The best way to learn is by asking them questions and paying attention to their answers. Once you figure out what their movement quality is, you can point them towards opportunities that will move them further.

Step 3: Learn What Their Goals Are–And Commit To Helping Them Get There

I don’t believe that it’s enough to tell an employee a goal and expect them to hit it. As human beings, we need a “why” to do anything–and answering that why with “because I said so” or “because it’s the goal” probably isn’t going to get you the results you want for long.

Instead, I recommend asking them what their goals are, both personally and professionally and finding a way for success in their role to lead them to their ultimate goal.

For example, about six months ago, I asked my employee what his goals were. It was his first real Big Boy Job, so his first answer was something surface-level. “I want to further understand my role in the company and where I best fit,” he said. I was unimpressed, so I asked again, “No really, what are your goals? Like what do you want out of life?”

Then, we got to the good stuff. He shared that his girlfriend of many years was going to be coming home from her graduate program and he wanted her to move in with him, but the only way he’d feel comfortable with that would be if he moved out of the house he was sharing with his roommates and into his own apartment.

Bingo. A goal.

That allowed us to talk about all kinds of things: his values, his dreams, and the girlfriend. Ultimately, we set a figure (rent + additional expenses) he’d need to meet in order to comfortably move into his own place. We projected what his commission might grow to over a certain period of time, and we predicted he’d get there in about six months of sustainable growth.

After that one conversation, he was off to the races. I knew what he wanted out of his job and I got to help him with that. I threw projects his way that would increase his earnings in line with what he’d projected. He sought out projects for himself that went above and beyond what was expected of him. He was motivated, excited, and passionate. Best of all, he moved into his new apartment in five months–with plenty of time to decorate before his girlfriend moved in.

No matter how busy you are or how fast-paced your workplace is, you can make time to connect with your new employees. You can be a “good leader” with just a few minutes of care and attention to your team’s needs. You’ll find that those voices will get quieter over time–and much faster if you commit to your peoples’ growth in the first few weeks of your leadership tenure.

What are your go-to leadership tactics in a new role?