Leadership in tough times requires good communication – not business art

Leadership in tough times requires good communication – not business art

Open your LinkedIn feed. You don’t have to scroll long before you come across someone posting about their recent layoff. If you’ve ever been in that position before, you know how It’s scary to read such a post.

Even if your current company hasn’t laid off anyone.

That’s what fear is all about.

It’s a fire that spreads quickly enough on its own, but the words “layoff” and 10,000 additional shares make it spread even faster. It is a fire that consumes rationality. It is a fire that will burn right through the reassuring statements of government economists.

Financial anxiety — also known as “Oh, crap, how am I going to pay the rent syndrome” — is in the air.

If you’re a CEO or founder, now is the time to step up your internal communications game.

You can start by being a better manager.

Increase your availability.

A leader who separates himself from his people is no leader at all. A manager behind a locked door (either real or metaphorical) also gives the impression that they are working on something they don’t want their team to see.

As a power reduction announcement.

Tough times require visibility. Even if you don’t know what to say, now is the time to be seen.

People look to managers for security – now is the time to deliver.

In case you haven’t heard, we’re in uncertain times — and in uncertain times, people look to their leaders to deliver reassurance.

Security does not require having all (or even some) of the answers. Instead, security means knowing the strength and character of yourself and the people you surround yourself with. Being confident means you are confident in their ability to overcome their greatest challenges. Being confident doesn’t mean saying, “I know we can get through this.” It means saying, “I know that we—and you—are going to be fine in the long run, no matter what happens tomorrow.

That means following that statement up with real action.

(You can start by doing everything you can to help them find a new job. Don’t post a selfie of yourself crying on LinkedIn. See the next section for more on the futility of performative empathy.)

As a manager, you cannot control the degree of uncertainty your employees feel about the market, your industry, or the general direction of society. But you can make them feel confident about you.

Remember: Performative empathy is the opposite of true leadership.

Genuine empathy is a big thing. However, we have fetishized empathy. We demand an emotional performance, even in scenarios where true empathy could not possibly exist. We expect leaders to show their empathy even when they could not possibly know what it feels like to face the terror of an uncertain economic future.

Here’s the thing: more than 60 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. An unexpected medical bill can bankrupt a family that has followed the rules all their lives.

If you’re a CEO and you’ve ever been able to envision even a theoretical financial future in the millions—or more—then you don’t know what it feels like to stare down the barrel of a mortgage or rent bill coming due with no idea how to pay it.

So don’t pretend you have.

Individual CEOs and business leaders cannot prevent downturns. Recessions or even downturns are complex events with causes that can remain mysteries for decades. Employees understand that times are tough, and their CEO and senior leaders did not cause the turmoil that affected the economy.

They also understand that there are huge differences between the average employee who loses his job and a CEO who is inevitably already writing his own comeback story.

If you’re on the still-employee side of the desk (or the Zoom meeting, or worse, the mass email), don’t pretend you’re in the same boat. You are not.

That is not true empathy.

It’s just BS corporate performance art.

It’s like being lowered into the Atlantic Ocean on a lifeboat as you yell back to the people on the deck of the Titanic and shout, “We’re all in this together!”

Tough times require better leadership. And better communication.

The two are usually similar.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.

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