Imagine it’s exhibition time and nobody is attending. Something similar happened to me recently. We planned our attendance at a big event, expecting as usual many talks, etc. and then the cancellations started. For fear of COVID-19, the all-dominant topic these days. For fear of the undetermined, uncontrollable, unpredictable. For fear of something that is not known, something that, as invisible as it is, nests itself so incomprehensibly large – in the heads, in the thoughts, in the actions. And leaves so many people speechless. But this is exactly what it is all about in times of such an unexpected crisis – talking to each other, maintaining communication.
I have noticed that first emotions become very strong. The first rejection still reaps mild incomprehension, the second starts first considerations, the third and fourth starts a rethinking and all the others grow to think about alternatives. You unexpectedly get into a whirlpool of events and see that one or the other gets carried away, that conversations visibly only revolve around it, but the actual focus begins to blur. And therein is the need for strong, transparent and consistent communication.
Already in 2001, after 9/11, I experienced such speechlessness. At that time I was responsible for sales and marketing in an agency that had just become part of an international network. The worries and fears of each individual were written on every face. The stunningness dominated their thoughts and actions. During this time I learned how important it is to talk – even if you don’t know anything. So I started talking to the team and summarized what happened, also shared my personal feelings and asked everyone to talk to each other, also to accept that the management could not yet answer all questions, but would listen to them. And I promised that we would issue regular communications as soon as we heard news from our colleagues and friends in the USA. And that’s how it was then – over a few days. At that time the team delivered a solidarity among each other, a calmness and the confidence to be able to concentrate on the essential things in the job, the projects, while being kept up to date.
Something similar I tried to implement also this time. Transparent, open, honest communication. We had booked the event, how should we handle it now? I was asked from various sides whether the management had already decided something regarding our participation. I saw that many colleagues were trying to obtain information. So I started again with proactive, transparent communication. These subsequent steps helped me repeatedly to name the topic, to give it a platform and yet to focus on the real issues of the day if possible:
Accept questions about a possible cancellation or participation, as in this case. Ask why it is important to the questioner and listen to the answer. In this way you show respect for your conversation partner feelings and thoughts.
Translate the answers into an overarching language of communication that others in the team can understand. Include these answers in your communication, thus showing each individual that he/she has been heard, but also giving others the opportunity to recognize their own fears.
Admit openly if you do not have the answers, or even that you are not in the position to change anything. Show that there are situations in which not everything always seems clear and yet the way forward can be found.
Once you have started the communication, keep it going. Better one email too many than one too few, better one meeting too many than one too few to quickly identify, understand and respond to rumours and false reports.
In times when individual concerns for one’s own well-being predominate, it is important to allow individual decisions. Each individual should then decide whether to participate in such an event, for example, but also make this decision openly and honestly. Make sure that no reasons are put forward, but ask the team to deal with them openly and honestly. Trust in the understanding among each other.
This all sounds very much like a one-way street, but it is not. Everyone in the team should understand in such a situation that he/she can also help to keep the team and the project together. There are those who decided to participate in an event and contribute to it on-site. But there are also those who have decided to stay away and yet support the whole thing. And exactly these people are now especially in demand to come out of hiding and to communicate openly.
For both groups applies:
Honestly state your reasons for your decision. But remember, the other person may decide differently, so give reasons without claiming correctness or understanding.
Accept the decision of the others in as neutral and value-free a manner as possible.
Give each other encouragement throughout the day. Those who are at the event would probably appreciate a text message from the other. Those who are in the office might be interested in what is happening at the event. Especially those who are in the office and therefore in their comfort zone should be pro-active here.
In these days of unpredictable future I wish you all stable health and confidence.