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Leadership Communications During COVID-19: A survey of U.S. organizations

By Diana Dopfel and Mike Kuczkowski

We have just completed our first survey of leadership communications at US organizations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The press release can be found here and the full research report can be found here.

The results found that organizations have risen to the challenge of COVID-19 communications, but the needs of employees in this time of crisis persist. Leaders must address concerns and demonstrate transparency, clarity and openness to build stronger relationships with employees. 

Background

First, a bit of background. Our survey instrument was rooted in our work, led by Diana Dopfel, on leadership behaviors and practices specific to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (which can be found here). Since early March, we’ve viewed this pandemic as a unique event that would test leaders in two ways – they are experiencing the impacts of the public health responses as individuals, and as leaders of organizations that are going through disruption by abruptly closing, transitioning to work-from-home status, shifting to new ways of working and dealing with school closures, among other changes. 

In the model, we’ve urged leaders to exhibit the following leadership behaviors:

  • Be present and listen: be available; be visible; listen and encourage conversation
  • Communicate early and often: be transparent; communicate with clarity; orient your communications to what people need to know
  • Get comfortable with ambiguity: assert your need for flexibility; be flexible with others; get comfortable with a changing set of facts
  • Practice empathy: recognize that different people deal with stress differently; check your tone
  • Be self-aware: pause and check your behaviors; triage priorities; consider your own well being

In terms of leadership practices, we’ve urged leaders to:

  • Rely on familiar channels and routines: pair the right messages with the right channels; use old routines for new purposes
  • Share information early and often: communicate early; communicate with frequency; keep your promises
  • Combat misinformation: correct misinformation immediately; refer people to credible sources

Our survey was designed to determine the degree to which these behaviors and practices were present in current communications relating to the pandemic. Here’s what we found:

A massive disruption

  • COVID-19 has caused a great disruption for U.S. organizations. 83% of respondents in our nationally representative survey said the public health response to COVID-19 has had an impact on their organization, with 58% of respondents citing a shift in activity, 43% noting a decrease in activity, and 20% saying activity has increased. 

Rising to the leadership communications challenge

  • On the practices recommended in our model, which are so critical in these moments, respondents said their organizations had been delivering on-topic communications (82%) using the right communications channels (85%) with an appropriate frequency (79%). (43% said communications have been more frequent than usual.)
    • It’s worth noting that leaders and employees saw many things differently, including their sense of how frequent communications were. Leaders were more likely than employees to say communications were frequent enough (85% to 76%).
  • Respondents also indicated that leaders have been keeping their promises (83%) by following through on doing what they said they would do and communicating what they said they would communicate. 
  • In terms of topics addressed, the largest number of respondents said communications have focused on recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19, communications about the general impact of the pandemic on the organization and the impact of public health orders on operations.

Signs communications need to do more

  • In terms of rating the quality of COVID-19 communications, between 63 to 66% of respondents said the messages they’ve received in the context of the pandemic were “very” or “extremely” clear, trustworthy, appropriate in tone, and honest and open.
  • Respondents offered lower marks for how satisfied they are with communications (55%), or how useful they find messages to be at communicating what employees should think and do (53%). 11% of respondents said they were not very or not at all satisfied with pandemic-related communications.

The leader-employee perception gap

  • On other measures, there was a clear leader-employee perception gap. Leaders were more likely than employees to say communications were “very” or “extremely” trustworthy (75% to 63%), clear (69% to 62%), honest and open (75% to 58%), successful at alleviating anxiety and concern (46% to 33%) and useful at communicating what employees should think and do (58% to 51%). 
  • Leaders also were more likely to say communications were frequent enough (85% to 76%) and clearly indicated what leaders did and did not know (29% to 21%).
  • Additionally, a slim majority (54%) of employees said they believe their organization is extremely or very committed to satisfying employee communications needs, compared with 64% of leaders. Less than half of employees (43% as opposed to 60% of leaders) said they believe their organization is extremely or very interested in hearing employee feedback during this pandemic.

Future directions

In more than 200 open-ended answers to a question about what organizations should do differently for the future, respondents said they wanted to understand clear plans for the organization’s future, the impact of the disruption on their role, work and job security, information about benefits, and more consistent, frequent and direct communications from top leaders, with a number of respondents indicating that they were receiving inconsistent information depending on the source of the communication.  

When asked what they want to see more of from future communications, the top responses were:

  • Transparency about what the organization knows and doesn’t know (32%)
  • More information about resources for emotional and mental health, including dealing with stress & anxiety (25%)
  • Stronger acknowledgment of the difficulty of the situation (23%)
  • More frequent communications (22%)
  • More clarity in communications (22%)
  • More direct acknowledgment of misinformation and/or rumors (22%)
  • More information about sick days, personal days and other benefits to deal with sick family members, children at home, etc. (21%)

In more than 200 open-ended responses to a question about the most important thing they want leaders to know about communicating during the COVID-19 pandemic, the top six categories of responses were: be honest and transparent; stay calm and lead by example; help employees stay safe and healthy; be factual; check in and care; and be clear and direct. As one indicative response said, “Just be open and transparent with employees. These are scary times.”

Further resources

Here is a list of our resources on COVID-19.

  • Here is the full research report. To request the full data set, please reach out to research@orangefiery.com.  
  • Here is the press release
  • Here is the resource titled “Navigating COVID-19: A Briefing for Leaders” with a chart pack on key concepts and counsel on the pandemic. This was published March 20 and has been updated with current data April 2.
  • Here is a COVID-19 Lexicon, which contains a list of key terms related to COVID-19, including self-quarantine, isolation, lockdown, and others. 
  • Here is a tip sheet called COVID-19 Leadership Behaviors and Practices, to support business leaders and others as they communicate with stakeholders during the coronavirus 2019 pandemic. It outlines what you should remember to do and how you should remember to act when communicating during such a challenging time. 

Orangefiery works with leaders and organizations to help them navigate inflection points, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information about how Orangefiery can assess organizational communications and implement programs to transform performance, contact us at info@orangefiery.com.

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