One thing is clear about Covid-19: nobody knew what changes or uncertainties would come our way. This uncertainty can cause anxiety, anger or stress – especially when it relates to our health, our loved ones and our livelihoods.
In the Netherlands, weekly press conferences created a sense of community and pride. The continuous process of communication and taking the Dutch people through the crisis step by step has helped the Dutch population to face the Covid-19 crisis together. What can we learn from this if we apply it to change communication in business?
How do business leaders usually communicate on major change processes and issues? Rather than communicate openly in times of crisis and change, they often remain silent – which is not always the best solution.

UNCERTAINTY FEEDS THE GRAPEVINE

Typically, people don’t like the unknown. Our brains search for what scientists call cognitive closure, which motivates us to solve ambiguous problems in our minds.
Let’s assume that a company wants to launch a completely new strategy. The end goal is clear, but how to get there is not yet clearly defined. In such cases, leaders tend to remain silent, fearing that incomplete information will make everyone more nervous and expose them to criticism. Meanwhile, the lack of information causes some employees to seize the first piece of gossip and spread rumours that undermine the strategy. Other employees prepare themselves for the worst and start renewing their CVs and applying for jobs.
As a leader, it is better to be the source of information, however incomplete, than to let others determine your story.

WHY PROCESS COMMUNICATION IS SO IMPORTANT

Staying silent when you don’t have all of the facts may seem logical, many leaders feel they can’t expect people to trust and believe in them if they’re doubtful. But people need and expect you to communicate with them.
So what can you do?
Concentrate on what can be said instead of what cannot be said. Don’t just dive into the what and how of the changes, make sure you also pay attention to the why.
Help your team imagine the result by describing the future you hope to create together. Remind people that while some aspects of their world may change, others will stay the same: the values that you and your organisation have always stood for are there to stay.
In every press conference, the Dutch government made sure the what, how and why were repeated. We have to wash our hands, sneeze in our elbows, we keep a distance of one and a half meters and stay at home in case of complaints. We do this to defeat Covid-19 together and ensure a united and liveable Netherlands for everyone.
Clear communication can help people through times of uncertainty and set them on the right path. So if you’re going through big changes and you don’t know what’s going to happen, resist the temptation to wait until you have all the details perfectly worked out. Be honest and share the intermediate steps. Fill in as many of the blanks as you can and acknowledge with empathy, those that remain. You may not have all the answers, but you can help people to understand the process.

THE POWER OF REPETITION

In times of crisis or major changes, you can’t repeat a message often enough. You may think “I said this already,” but that doesn’t mean the listener heard, understood or could apply your message. During major change processes, it can take up to 10 times for a message to stick. Use multiple channels. Repeat the process, share your message often, and weird but true, use the same words.
After hearing the message over and over again, the whole of the Netherlands can repeat the instructions: wash your hands, cough into your elbow, stay 1.5 metres apart.
Repetition is the golden rule of change communication.

YOUR VALUES ARE YOUR FOUNDATION IN A CRISIS

A third element that struck me was how well the communication during COVID-19 reflected the core values of the Dutch people. The Dutch like clear facts and guidelines and prefer to fill them in themselves.
When it comes to organizations, acting in line with the company’s core values AND its people is just as important. What do the employees value? What do they stand for? What will they accept or not accept? What responsibility can you hand over to your employees and when?
Good process communication, the power of repetition and staying true to your core values, are important lessons for any change process. We don’t have to wait for a crisis like COVID-19 to put this into practice.

Anja Verheij, Amanda Coady and Saskia Dejonghe – Base Academy

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