In Times of Uncertainty, Communication and Trust are Critical

|, , , , , April 7, 2020

COVID-19 is a defining challenge for CEOs and senior leaders across Canada. All organizations are doing their best, managing under conditions of extreme uncertainty and rapid change. Our actions in these unprecedented times can build or break trust.

Like many organizations, we too are rallying to prepare for the unknown still ahead. With the realization that this is a marathon, not a sprint we are trying to pace ourselves and scenario plan for the short and long-term.  We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we are communicating often with our employees. Every day I see examples of how our public relations professionals are supporting each other and working together to serve our clients under these extreme circumstances. Our government relations specialists are keeping the lines open and helping interpret daily events.  Beyond working with incredible people, what drives us is a tone set from the top. We are fortunate to have a CEO who sets the right example by focusing first on the health and wellbeing of our employees as the priority in our operating decisions.

In January of this year, we conducted our annual Canadian trust study, CanTrust Index, now in its fifth year. This year, in addition to surveying a broad range of Canadians, we studied employees exclusively to gain a Canadian benchmark of their level of trust related to their workplaces and employers.

While there are bright spots in our studies, it is clear where improvement is needed.  One important area of concern, especially now, is low trust in our leaders.  Trust in CEOs as one example has fallen to 28% this year from 55% only two years ago.  CEO trust levels are weakest with younger and lower paid employees.

Trust is based on the evaluation of a leader’s or organization’s perceived competence and effectiveness and whether they will “do the right thing.” Trust is so highly valued that 65% of Canadian employees say that trusting their employer is just as important to them as the amount they are being paid.

On that note, here are some trust-building approaches we’re practicing and recommending to our clients as we navigate these difficult times.

  • Communicate consistently and often: It sounds obvious but during uncertain times, a leader’s behaviour, messaging, and communication can become a powerful tool for galvanizing optimism, calm and clarity. It can also impact how quickly we will rebound in future months. Leaders should communicate frequently, be open about the evolving nature of the crisis, share how they are managing the problem and avoid mixed messages. What is said and done through this crisis will be remembered for better or worse as we recover.
  • Ground decision-making and communication in your company values:  Values become even more valuable in a time of crisis. Our research suggests that connecting how company values relate to decision-making can be very effective in building trustworthiness. A strategically designed communication plan grounded in a company’s values can be a channel for growing competence and integrity-based trust which will be key to management’s success during this pandemic.
  • Walk in your employees’ shoes: Empathize as you provide the facts.  Sharing how your company is protecting its employees and their families’ safety and security will go a long way towards demonstrating your willingness to understand and address their fears and anxieties. Our employee study found that only 52% of Canadians are willing to share personal feelings (such as fear or anxiety about the future) with their leader. High levels of fear and anxiety in employees are a barrier to action.
  • Engage employees in response, recovery and communication efforts: Engaging employees in company response efforts – and even in tough decisions – can help restore their sense of control and can reduce anxiety. You may also get some good ideas from employees, especially those who have an intimate sense of how their co-workers or customers are feeling.
  • Listen carefully to what’s not being said as part of your action plan: Our research shows that only 54% of Canadian employees are willing to confide in their leader about issues affecting their work. Proactively defining the issues that directly impact your employees’ ability to work is crucial. Communicating your understanding and quickly offering solutions grounded in your company values will provide credible evidence that they can depend on you to “back them up” in this difficult situation.

The evidence is clear, teams with a higher degree of trust in their leadership are more agile and better able to navigate uncertainty. In the difficult days and months ahead, trust building should be a deliberate part of management and recovery plans.

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