6 Tips for Communicating With Your Team When Crisis Strikes

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With Boston’s bombings, West, Texas' explosion and poison letters on Capitol Hill, our world has been rocked hard this week.

Indeed, a crisis can strike anytime, anyplace—and with it, communication demands skyrocket.

Here are 6 tips to help you communicate during the worst of times:

No. 1: Take down silos.  Bring diverse work teams together through web and teleconferences to hear situational announcements and updates directly from senior managers. Unite associates regardless of their function or level. Seeing senior leaders come together to work through the challenge sets the paradigm for expected actions by the team.

No. 2: Create an action plan.  Think ahead – and worst case.  What if your entire facility was destroyed? In the case of the West, Texas explosion, it certainly was.  A plan is needed for communicating, regrouping and moving forward.  The most effective plans engage diverse teams, representing multiple businesses and levels. Plans should include specific roles and responsibilities of work groups and team members to restore operations.  They should be reviewed daily for execution successes and snarls. Additionally, there should be dynamic, two-way channels for questions, ideas and other incoming feedback from associates. Remember, that two-way capability is essential.

No. 3: Rely on face to face whenever possible. As demonstrated by this week’s Boston Marathon tragedy, cell networks get overloaded during times of crisis. Whenever possible, activate a face-to-face communication practice that relies on periodic team huddles conducted by front-line supervisors. Coordinate a briefing process for supervisors that keeps them in the know and arms them with key messages to talk over with employees during huddles. Keep huddles informal by holding them in hallways or break rooms.  In addition, establish a feedback channel for supervisors to phone, text or email the questions and comments they receive. That feedback will help shape future messages that address the collective concerns of front-line associates.

No. 4: Don’t forget remote employees. Regardless of the size or severity of the incident, once a manager is alerted, he or she should personally reach out to team members, whether they are directly affected by the crisis or not. Don’t pass this task off to an administrative assistant. With such high stakes coming out of the West, Texas explosion—fear of the unknown among them—employees need to hear the facts from managers in a timely and routine cycle as the situation develops.

No. 5: Regroup, refine and improve. Apply continuous improvement techniques to this practice.  After the crisis, bring team members together to debrief in cross-functional huddles, live or virtually through videoconferencing platforms. Get specific feedback to three questions:

  1. What went well?
  2. What didn’t?
  3. What and how can we improve?

Engage a diverse action team of front-line employees to collect and analyze the feedback, and then develop an improved practice. Empower the team to brief senior management on recommended changes and make final refinements. Once the updated practice is agreed upon, ask the action team to join senior managers in communicating it broadly. Be sure that communication includes a verbal “thank you” to associates for their improvement ideas. Now you’ve shown that even during tough times, management is truly listening.

No. 6: Continue supporting managers’ communication skills. Don't stop the messaging and huddle process once things settle down. Keep it going. Use Web-based platforms to provide coaching tips and practical tools to help managers provide timely, direct business updates. Encourage candor, actively listening and real-time recognition. These skills are the basics for forging positive workplace relationships—and provide the structure to ensure continuous, consistent dialogue—to establish communication as a work process and not a random event.

In the event of an unforeseen, catastrophic event, don’t let the inability to efficiently and effectively communicate with your team be the second crisis that you’ll have to deal with.  If you don’t have the means or the talent in your organization to create the infrastructure, get help from a professional.  It’s an investment that will pay big dividends through improved everyday communication and could be a lifesaver for both individuals and the organization in times of critical need.

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