Imagine you’re the CEO of a corporation that’s just received notice of a serious, widespread data breach. Or you’re a higher-up at a major car manufacturer and it’s discovered your newest model doesn’t pass emissions tests and isn’t the environmentally friendly vehicle you’ve been touting.

What if you’re in charge of customer relations and your social media manager goes rogue, creating an embarrassing pickle that’s gone viral, landing you in scalding-hot water with your biggest clients? What do you do — what’s your first action? Who do you reach out to? What do you tell your employees? How do you lead your company through the storm?

There are a host of crises that can affect business. Depending on where you’re based, your company likely has a plan or protocol in place for dealing with natural disasters, for example. But what about other catastrophes that can bring sudden devastation and uncertainty to an organization?

In March, provinces and territories, cities and towns across the country began announcing emergency declarations in response to COVID-19. The deadly virus spread fast, shuttering businesses and causing insecurity and turmoil among millions of Canadians. When disaster strikes, employers must be ready for the onslaught that follows. Here’s what leaders need to know when it comes to first steps that should be taken to effectively communicate to teams and, ultimately, help employees navigate the crisis.

Take charge

“When a crisis hits, people need to feel safe while receiving the relevant information to help them make sense of the situation. Leaders play a substantial role in supporting their employees through these times,” says Serena G. Sohrab, an assistant professor of management at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont. First, leaders must stay calm and confident. “A leader’s ability to express proper emotions that don’t scare people while projecting a healthy dose of urgency is important,” she says. It’s key for management to help their teams understand the situation by offering pertinent information in an easily digestible way. “The presented information must be broken down into smaller chunks. It should be communicated transparently and with realistic optimism. The ability to make decisions fast also becomes prominent at times of crisis.”

Be Present

At times like this, employees are looking to leaders for guidance, credible information and to diminish stress and anxiety. Even though they’re often unable to answer every question or quell every fear, the best leaders ensure they’re highly visible and accessible. Not only does this encourage trust, it also shows employees you’re calm and collected, which fuels confidence among the team. “The presence of leaders sends the message that they are paying attention to the hardships that people are facing, and that they are doing everything possible to alleviate their pain and suffering,” says Sohrab.

Convey the right messages

Any crisis management professional will attest to this — knowing not only what to say, but how to say it, is golden. “The communications should first convey that the leader and employees are in this situation together and that management is willing to sacrifice if needed,” she says, adding this type of management is known as “servant leadership.” In this current pandemic, several CEOs announced they’d take pay cuts and forgo bonuses. For example, the CEO of Marriott took measures to suspend new hires, cut his executive team’s pay by 50 percent and stated he wouldn’t be taking a salary for the rest of 2020. Lyft’s cofounders promised to donate their salaries from April to June to support their drivers. And after the stoppage of all sports games and events, Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment president and CEO announced the leadership team would take a salary reduction and his total compensation would be cut by more than 50 percent. “They need to impart the fact that they’re fully aware of the challenges and difficulties their employees face and they’re ready to do whatever it takes to support them,” she says. “They should also make it known that they’re using all available resources to minimalize the damage on the company and the employees.”

“The presented information must be broken down into smaller chunks. It should be communicated transparently and with realistic optimism. The ability to make decisions fast also becomes prominent at times of crisis.”

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