THURSDAY 23 MAR 2023 3:49 PM


Victoria Lewis-Stephens, founder and managing director of United Culture, considers the importance of leaders' voices during times of uncertainty.

In a world of socio-economic and political uncertainty, there’s a lot of pressure on leaders to stand up and be counted and to always have something to say. However, it’s also very common that they say nothing.

It’s understandable – they’re reluctant to comment on things they don’t understand, that are in flux, or when they might feel they’ve left it too late to say anything useful or different. They don’t want to be perceived to be communicating inauthentically, especially around difficult topics like societal issues or reducing headcount.

But great leaders will keep the lines of communication open, even when the situation is ambiguous. Even if the news is bad, providing context and communicating more rather than less can provide much-needed cushioning to the blow and keep employees engaged.

It’s interesting, in fact, that most leaders only communicate when things are going well or really poorly. You hardly ever hear, “We’re doing okay, but…”. Instead, you get bursts of communication interspersed with silence.

Yet, more than ever, employees are reliant on leaders to connect the dots and give context to changes, and on the vision and direction for the business.

Understand your audience – and listen.

A leader might feel they can’t talk authentically about the cost-of-living crisis if they earn 20 times more than their average employee. But they can if they can reflect what the audience really wants and needs to hear.

Listening is the cornerstone of good business communication. But it has taken a hit in recent years as hybrid working has taken away those ad hoc chats in the lift, the quick conversations over the desk, or the ability to read a colleague’s body language. Yet it remains vital.

And what we did see during the pandemic – admittedly because organisations were in crisis mode and had no choice – was leaders becoming more empathetic and ‘human’ in their communications.

But given a business landscape that is extremely challenging, listening and empathy must be balanced with what matters to people right now: the decisive action that will lead organisations to growth. In essence, what the leader is doing to ensure their people will still have a job tomorrow.

The need for narrative

When it comes to the bigger-picture conversations, leaders may be wondering how best to communicate with their people, given the changing priorities of their internal stakeholders. 

First, it’s about knowing what story they’re trying to tell and articulating that narrative in a credible and genuine way. Equally important though is communicating in the way they find most comfortable – there’s no point doing a town hall meeting if they’re more adept at writing a blog post.

Finally, understand the audience and what’s on the mind of those people. In many cases, leaders will want to talk to different segments of the workforce at different times and the same messaging or tone won’t work for all.

It’s not just a question of where those people sit in the hierarchy, either. In some organisations, different business functions - whether that’s the sales team or the engineers - will have vastly differing perspectives and will require the story nuanced in a certain way or to be communicated to via certain channels.

The role of internal comms

Leaders must also take responsibility for their communications, which is often where the internal comms team comes in.

Many internal comms teams have historically felt they didn’t have a seat at the top table. Despite the fact their function became even more critical during the pandemic, many still don’t.

Business communications is now much more sophisticated, and communications teams have an important role to play in helping leaders reach their audience in an authentic way.  They can be the voice of the audience. Having an internal communications person write your ‘all employees’ email, or waiting until a messaging has been honed to ‘perfection’ during times of trouble, simply won’t cut it any more.

It’s an intriguing opportunity. The changing expectations of internal audiences means that people want to hear from their leaders far more often and regularly – not just when things are going well or when there are clouds on the horizon. 

That means leaders are going to have to focus far more of their attention on what they say and how and when they say it, even if their first instinct may be to say nothing at all.