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The importance of clear communication, even in uncertain times

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Clear communication is vital in a great many circumstances, but it can be tempting to try and bluff your way through things when you don’t have all the answers. Recent research1 from UNSW Business School highlights how even then, clear communication is hugely important if employees are to trust their leader.

The authors highlight how the pandemic has often meant that leaders have both incomplete and rapidly changing information upon which to make their decisions.  This makes it even more important to have a consistent communication style.

“Even if you have the same information (or lack information) you can frame the message in different ways,” the researchers say. “We know that the way you share information has influence on the wellbeing of trust. Because if you pretend every time that you know it all, and you don’t know it all, people don’t believe you anymore.”

Clear communication

They suggest five strategies to use to ensure that employees can trust what leaders say:

  1. Be upfront, even if you don’t have all the information – This can be especially hard as there is an expectation that leaders have all the answers, but there are many times when this won’t be the case.  In those circumstances, it’s best to be honest and authentic.“It’s much better to be open and honest, how you make the decision,” they say. “If you have the message that ‘I know it all, this is what we are going to do’, and ‘I will take care of you’ that’s fine. But then you need to have a consistent story.”
  1. Keep messaging consistent – The aim is to ensure that your messaging is direct and consistent.  This is especially important during crises as it helps to build trust among your team.“People want to have consistent information,” the researchers say. “If there’s no consistency in messages, then people don’t trust it anymore. For example, when saying ‘don’t rush for a vaccination’ then the next week saying, ‘please get a vaccination’, people don’t know what to do, as it might change again the next week.”
  1. Maintain consensus across messaging – It’s inevitable that decisions will change when new information becomes available, but even then it’s important that messaging is consistent across leaders for employees to both understand the messaging and have faith in it.“People at different levels should send out the same message,” the researchers explain. “In the public sphere, for example, the lack of consensus from state leaders as they receive new information is something that might confuse people, who may initially perceive leaders as being on the ‘same government team.”
  1. Be upfront about tough decisions – Difficult decisions are an inevitability, especially in a crisis where you’ll often be left with a “least bad” option.  If you’re honest with people, however, then you’re more likely to bring them along with you than kidding them that all will be okay.“While the crisis is unpredictable and changing fast, you will know as a company leader that there can be a risk and that maybe not all the jobs are safe,” the researchers say. “So, if you are really consistent and clear that the jobs are safe, and within two weeks make some people redundant, people don’t trust management anymore.”
  1. Show how people can help each other – During crises, the ability to help one another is often as important as receiving help passed down to you from leaders.  Communication from leaders should strive to reinforce how teams can help one another during the difficult times they’re experiencing.“[At UNSW] in almost every email, at the base of it is how we can help each other,” the researchers say. “If you feel anxiety or if you have some mental health issues, here are web links, and please see your doctor.”

“With this, one shows that maybe we don’t know it all, but we are well aware that the whole situation can create anxiety and mental health issues, and that management tries to support their employees.”

Article source: The Importance Of Clear Communication, Even In Uncertain Times.

Header image source: iStock.


  1. Sanders, K., Nguyen, P. T., Bouckenooghe, D., Rafferty, A., & Schwarz, G. (2020). Unraveling the what and how of organizational communication to employees during COVID-19 pandemic: Adopting an attributional lens. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 56(3), 289-293.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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