Clear communication of plans is difficult at the best of times for leaders. Having to do so when the information on which those plans rely is constantly shifting is even more so. 

Today, leaders are having to communicate their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic amid rapidly changing information flows. The knowledge they use to make decisions today, might not be the same next week. In this environment, it is more important than ever for leaders to decide on their communication style in order to engender trust in their messaging, says Karin Sanders, a Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School

“Even if you have the same information (or lack information) you can frame the message in different ways,” Prof. Sanders says. “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.” 

Prof. Sanders, who recently co-authored a paper on the effectiveness of senior leaders sharing information with their employees during uncertain crisis environments, recommends five ways leaders can engender trust in their communication strategy when they themselves do not have all the information.  

1. Be upfront if you don’t have all the information  

“Leaders, in general, find it difficult to be honest that they don't know [all the answers], either,” says Prof. Sanders. “They can have the idea that as a leader, one needs to show that they know it all. But sometimes you don’t know it all. And then it's much better to be authentic and honest.” 

In a situation like COVID-19 with plenty of shifting variables, Prof. Sanders recommends leaders be clear and concise in their communications, outlining why they are making their decisions with the information currently available while making it clear that this information might change.

Read more: Is it too late for the government to win back Australia’s trust?

“It's much better to be open and honest, how you make the decision,” she says. “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.” 

One way to avoid this pitfall and potentially risk damaging trust if plans fall through is to first admit fallibility from the offset, and secondly, be open in what information you are relying on when making decisions. 

2. Try to keep messaging consistent around decisions and advice  

As far as possible, keep the message, direction and tone of communication consistent. In a study undertaken by Prof. Sanders and her colleagues on crisis communication sent out by senior leaders of universities during the pandemic, consistency was one of the attributes of messages that ranked high in building trust. 

“People want to have consistent information,” Prof. Sanders says. “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.” 

This can be difficult in an environment where information flows are changing rapidly (which is where admitting fallibility is key), but Prof. Sanders says it is worth trying and making it clear to employees that there is a lot of uncertainty. 

At times of heightened uncertainty, it's key to keep messaging as consistent as possible. Photo: Shutterstock

3. When decisions are finalised, keep consensus across messaging 

As decisions change with new information coming to light, having the same message from all leaders across the organisation is vital, says Prof. Sanders. In the study, for example, the researchers found that when different senior managers kept messaging consistent, that university scored higher for communication effectiveness. 

"People at different levels should send out the same message,” she explains. 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’.  

“We are all in Australia, but sometimes the people in different states are not working together,” Prof. Sanders says. “Then it becomes, in a way, scary and confusing. People just want to have clarity and feel secure and safe.” 

Any messaging sent out by the business needs to be along the same lines - even between different leaders. Photo: Brett Jordan / Unsplash

4. Be upfront about hard decisions – or risk low morale and alienation  

Making difficult organisational and staffing decisions is something that leaders have often had to do through the COVID-19 pandemic. As leaders receive new information, Prof. Sanders says communication needs to be handled delicately. 

“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,” she says. “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. 

“Because even if [an employee's job] is safe, and it's not their job that is made redundant, people think ‘it's now my colleague, tomorrow I can be the one’. It's really bad for the morale.” 

5. Make it clear how people can help each other in the meantime  

In times of uncertainty, it is vital that leaders acknowledge the importance of mental health and the community in their communications.  

“[At UNSW] in almost every email, at the base of it is how we can help each other,” says Prof. Sanders. “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.” 

Find out more about business leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic at BusinessThink.