Communicating with impact: The role of empathy in a crisis

by Nicky Budd-Thanos, on May 6, 2020

With the spread of COVID-19 spurring a new normal for organizations around the world, everyone’s scrambling to adapt to unprecedented change. This pandemic requires operations leaders, HR executives, and general managers at restaurants, grocery stores, and many other essential businesses to make sure they’re effectively and consistently communicating with their entire workforce. Getting your frontline to consume, absorb, and remember the information you share is especially paramount during a crisis, because you need to reach them in order to maintain order, trust, and to get a consistent message out to your customers.
With this in mind, the tone you use to connect with frontline teams is almost as crucial as what you say. Thoughtful and well-executed internal announcements, messages, videos, emails, group chats, and conference calls can have a major impact in the form of stronger relationships and engagement across your organization—not only during an emergency scenario, but in the course of normal business once it resumes. However, it’s easy to forget this when you’re overwhelmed with a seemingly endless need to update distributed teams over and over again, often with stressful information. No matter how crazy things get, the best leaders find a way to strike the right balance by always keeping empathy, compassion, and authenticity top of mind. In doing so, they’re able to ensure their communications resonate with employees.
That’s why we delve into this communications best practice in our new eBook, titled “Communicating at Crisis Speed,” which you can download here.
To whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt on demonstrating empathy in the midst of chaos and uncertainty:
On this topic, Alex Budak of UC Berkeley says, “The key in communicating is practicing empathy—putting yourself in the shoes of your employees as you craft your message specifically for them. Rather than seeing communications through the lens of your own stresses and pressures, communicate with a focus on employees’ concerns. Be the leader who thinks first about your employees and their perspectives and then creates communications from this place of understanding.” This advice is apropos, since research has found that 50% of executives fail to consider their team’s feelings when it comes to change.
While it can be difficult to find the time amid constant operational fire drills, one way to show empathy is to capitalize on what Budak calls “micro-leadership” opportunities. During the COVID-19 outbreak, being on the frontline has a whole new meaning, so try to take a moment each day to show employees that you appreciate the incredible work they’re doing, and that their efforts don’t go unnoticed. Rodney McMullen, chairman and CEO of Kroger, talks about how his company does this, saying “Grocery workers are on the frontlines, ensuring Americans have access to the food and products they need during this unprecedented pandemic. Our associates are working around the clock to keep our stores open for our customers. I am incredibly grateful for all they are doing. The true heroes in this story are our associates, and we want to provide them with additional resources and support to help them continue their remarkable effort.”
No matter how empathic you try to be, employees are unlikely to appreciate your efforts unless your communications feel authentic as well. Make sure your updates sound human and conversational, as opposed to overly polished “corporate speak.” It can be useful to funnel most messages through one key executive that your teams are familiar with, which is how Cousins Subs cuts through the clutter. The company's CEO, Christine Specht, says, “Our president has been the main point person for broadcast communication to our system… We chose him because he’s very straightforward, honest, and transparent. He’s the main communicator to our franchise community regarding things we need to do to sanitize differently and operate differently.”
These highly effective leaders communicate calmly, early, and predictably, showing employees that not only are they informed and in control, but that they care about the frontline and their well-being. As thousands of hard-hit restaurant, hospitality, and retail businesses have been forced to issue sweeping furloughs across their workforces, it’s even more critical to show compassion. By proactively addressing what levels of job security and health benefits these employees can expect during (and hopefully following) their unpaid leave, you’ll be more likely to retain the talent you’ll need to come out the other end of this crisis successfully.
Check out our full eBook for more on the value of empathy, as well as other key recommendations, best practices, and a handy checklist that will help you achieve greater impact with each message you need to deliver. We hope these actionable tips and considerations will ease your employee communications and HR efforts during the current crisis, as well as any other emergency that comes along.
If your team is looking for a real-time communication tool that makes it easier to communicate with impact, please reach out: we are waiving fees for businesses directly impacted by COVID-19 for the duration of the crisis and are offering one-day deployment and onboarding for new customers. We’d be glad to help.
And as always, share your stories with us on Twitter and stay tuned for more COVID-19 resources from Crew and around the web.