Communication lessons on how to handle major conflicts

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Gina London

I was talking to a coaching client this week who is the financial officer of a global energy management corporation with thousands of employees in Russia and hundreds of employees in Ukraine. It’s no surprise the topic of crisis communications arose.

“It’s extremely complicated and ever-changing,” she said. “More than running a business, we’re now focusing on humanitarian concerns. For example, immediately after the war began we advanced two months’ salary to our employees in Ukraine.”

Their Ukrainian facilities are no longer operating, but as most of the employees there are men, they are required to stay in Ukraine under the recently imposed martial law restrictions. They can certainly use the locally sourced cash.

For their Russian counterparts, this is also a sensitive time. My client says the employees there say they understand there was an illegal invasion, not a “special operation” as Russian president Vladimir Putin insists. “They’re against this war, but they’re afraid of the government,” she said.

Fallout from Nato sanctions is also negatively impacting the Russian employees. So too is the impact of guilt by association.

In what was formerly a collaborative organisation, my client described how during a recent country directors call other managers across Europe stated they do not want to interact any longer with their Russian colleagues.

Russian company trading has ceased outside of Russia, with transactions limited to only those within the borders of the pariah nation.

“We’re in daily conversations about how to support our employees from both Russia and Ukraine alongside the rest of employees and customers around the world,” my client said.

Here then, are some considerations for you and your organisation to discuss when dealing with how to communicate internally during a crisis, no matter the magnitude.

Communicate your approach

Communicate early and often at the beginning of a disruption or crisis. Aristotle coined the phrase “nature abhors a vacuum” but the same holds true for communication.

If something is disrupting the regular operations of your organisation, do not wait until you and your chosen team of leaders have developed a perfectly crafted plan before you begin speaking with your broader workforce.

Communication voids get filled with rumour, gossip or catastrophising. You need to reassure employees that you are tackling the issues, even while matters are still unfolding.

Explain who will form your core decision-maker team. In many cases, to be nimbler this group will be reduced from your normal senior leadership team membership. If so, you will obviously need to privately meet with the leaders who will not be a part of this limited group to gain understanding and support.

Also remind employees of the over-arching principles, mission elements or outcomes you remain committed to and offer as much comfort as you can. Your first missive is your “we’re here and we care” message.

Communicate priorities

Your next round of messaging can lay out a prioritised set of company concerns alongside the protocol you have now established for a chain of communication.

Unlike my client, you may not be trying to analyse the impact of fluctuating sanctions, delivery of employee benefits or personal safety, but you may have a long list of considerations. If they are on your list, they are also on the minds of your employees, so let them know you are exploring options and in what order.

Communicate protocol

It’s important to let your employees know when, where and from who they will be receiving information.

Don’t go dark. Some employers wait until they have big reports to send an email or have the CEO make a video recording or deliver a live town hall.

I recommend setting frequent and scheduled communication “hit-times” so employees know when to expect a new update.

As your company crisis unfolds, even if you don’t have a lot of news to share, click through your established (and communicated) priority list of company concerns and update each as much as you can.

If there is no new news on a particular topic, say that. Don’t make your employees guess. Remember my vacuum principle.

Communicate how to receive communications from employees

While we’re discussing how to communicate out to your employees, let me stress how important it is that you remain open to receiving input from them during this time.

They need to be encouraged to freely share their thoughts and ideas. They also need to know who they should be communicating to. Are you setting up an internal chat room or hotline, or dedicating a string of second-line managers to listen and carry messages forward?

Make all your communications avenues clear. Uncertainty in this environment can breed resentment toward leadership and drastically reduce productivity.

The best advice I can give is to commit to structure during a time of crisis.

It may not, hopefully not, be related to war, but in a time of a merger, digital transformation or some other event that provokes disruption — even if you don’t know what is going to happen next — please let your employees know you have their best interests in mind. This requires caring and careful communications.