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.


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