Can’t touch this – Change and Communications in times of COVID-19

“A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream that will end,” Albert Camus wrote in The Plague.

This rings very true, as we are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis that is currently developing. Change is hard. And today most of us find it hard to bear that something so invisible, so incomprehensible to us can have such a major impact on our plans and our lives.

As someone who advises and coaches organizations and their people how to move through change, seeing how we are trying to make sense of what is happening with COVID-19 as it unfolds has many parallels. Both are characterized by high uncertainty — about what is happening and what we should do about it, as individuals as well as a collective.

So I just wanted to write down and share some of my thoughts:

Understanding our brain and how it deals with change can help us better understand how we can deal with it. Neuroscience is a great place to start. Most of us know, that for our brain, the goal is survival. And it is very good at trying to meet that goal. To survive our brain needs to do two things; avoid threats like the saber-toothed tiger and to seek rewards like food or shelter. Both matter – but a threat is far more important. We can go without food and shelter for a while (although judging by the panic buying going on in my local supermarket you’d think otherwise). But if that tiger gets us…..

Our brain is a prediction machine always trying to make sense what is going on, what is happening to us, what it can do to protect us and how to make sure we survive.

So a feeling of uncertainty (or “threat” in fight or flight terms) leaves many of us thinking less clearly and having difficulties controlling our emotions. We start to perceive the world around us as much more hostile. This is where the uncertainty causes anxiety, leaving people struggling and asking many questions about what is happening, what we could or should do. Studies have shown, that we are more comfortable with certainty about a negative outcome than dealing with uncertainty itself.

With COVID-19, the facts around the situation are highly dynamic, there is very much we do not know yet. And that is why good and transparent change /crisis communication is key. When people feel there is a void, they try to fill it by coming together to make sense of what is going on which often can turn into the spread of misinformation. This can be dangerous.

The challenge now is to ensure that those who are managing responses from leaders to scientist to journalist diminish bad information, increase a trusting, transparent communication to decrease uncertainty and anxiety, and to make sure people can take the right decisions based on what we currently know is true.

Here are some of my tips for those communicating around COVID-19:

  • Keep communicating, talk about facts, debunk misinformation
    In times of change and crisis there is no “over communication”. Even if you have shared the story already a dozen times or more, the more people hear, the more they can process and understand. Remember that not everyone is always on the same level of understanding about what is happening yet. Talk about facts and debunk misinformation (constantly). It’s more important than ever to be clear and thorough, even if you feel like you’re repeating yourself again and again. Repetition in times of change is actually a good thing!
  • Use clear language and include context
    No one likes jargon. How many people truly understand what the term “community transmission” means or what quarantine is? So explain things in clear language. Also provide context in helping people understand more about how science works (what a great opportunity!) – from immune systems to scientific publishing, these subject are not only vital in communicating around COVID-19 but also are fascinating subjects in themselves.
  • Showcase competence
    The world needs to know and to appreciate that, science is a process and real people do science. So showcase these people, but make sure they are truly experts. In times like these it is especially important not to provide false balance. So stop showcasing people like anti-vaxxers or other deniers of scientific facts.
  • Explain what we do not know yet
    When working with change in organizations, I always advise on being as transparent as possible with their communications to alleviate as much uncertainty as possible. This means clearly communicating what we know, what will happen, what will not happen but just as much on what we don’t know yet. People have a lot of questions and it is ok to say that some we cannot answer yet. Just make sure to let them know that there are many people, such as researchers and scientists, who are working hard on finding answers we need.

  • Acknowledge fears and uncertainties.
    The worst thing I read or hear in the media (on – and offline) currently are the words “don’t panic”. Many people are worried and that is understandable in any situation where we cannot predict how it will end. So be respectful and acknowledge them and what they are feeling. Then provide these people with what reliable information we have to date , so that we can help them process the changes happening in a better way.

Yes, COVID-19 is a worldwide health crisis. It means that each and everyone of us needs to undertake specific actions to protect ourselves, our families, our friends, our communities and the world. To master the coming changes, it will be critical to have good, constant, factual information that we can trust, to inform the actions that we need to take. That is why I would urge  all leaders and communicators to use the right kind of communication that will help us in best responding to COVID-19 on an individual and collective level.

PS for those who like music, dancing, fun and positivity, check our my collaborative playlist on Spotify around songs in times of COVID-19 “Desinfect yourself, before you wreck yourself”

Edelman Trust Barometer 2020: CEOs can seize the day

When the World Economic Forum kicks off in Davos, the first thing I look out for is the Edelman Trust Barometer. Now in its 20th year, the PR agency Edelman has been measuring public trust in people and institutions.

And this year, this stuck out particularly for me:

  • Business is seen as the most competent of institutions, inching ahead even of NGOs. And it is seen as competent, even if seen as too self-centered by most respondents.

Time for CEOs to step up!

The survey shows that people have a high expectation that their company’s CEO takes the lead in speaking out on important issues – from climate change, diversity or jobs of the future. A whopping seventy-five percent (75%) believe CEOs should lead the way to change, almost that it is imperative for them to speak out and not wait for politics and government to step in.

Larry Fink only last week spoke out on jobs lost to automation and the need for ESG-only investments. Microsoft taking more carbon out of its operations. Steps in the right direction. But the level of consciousness needs to be raised! Just think to Siemens who recently have been criticized around their decision to invest in coal mining in Australia despite the recent environmental (fire) crisis.

More needs to be done and being a change enabler should move to the top of any CEO’s agenda in 2020.

Technology is a worry

83% of respondents said they were concerned also about losing their jobs for various reasons like a weak economy, lack of job security, automation, or a lack of skills. Meanwhile, 62% feel work technology is “out of control,” and technological change is happening too quickly. Yikes.

Therefore CEOs will need to make real investment efforts in the coming years in people, not just technology. Why? Because we need a perfect balance of the two!

Mastering challenges collectively

But also engaging stakeholders across the board will be a key opportunities for businesses and CEOs alike. 87% say that customers, employees and communities are more important to a company’s long-term success than shareholders alone.

Maybe we have already seeing a shift when looking at the announcement by The Business Roundtable Group of CEOs who said that we should start to move away from a sole focus on shareholders to a more balances purpose centred on all stakeholders.

My encouraging question to all CEOs out there: How will you use your opportunity to own the narrative and to drive change to build trust in the coming years?

Where has my day gone?

Not sure how often you and I have thought or expressed this frustration. While we are all given the same amount of time each day, it often seems there are not enough hours in a day to set out all we want to accomplish and we are left dissatisfied and feel a self-imposed pressure of “doing more”.

Sometimes I wonder if this self-proclaimed problem is due to modern life and technology. But reading Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life” (written already some time around 49 AD!), it becomes clear that we were already struggling with how to effectively allocate our time way back then. Thankfully, Seneca reminds us “life is long if you know how to use it.”

So why are we connected on 24/7 basis almost by default? Why is there this expectation that we need to be reachable at all times? That we constantly need to be busy and productive?

Maybe we need to step off that treadmill of engaging in activity for the sake of activity, being mindlessly busy. Maybe we need to remove the things that are keeping us busy but are not achieving useful results. Maybe we need to stop constantly obsessing over time management in order to maximize every second of our day. What if we started giving ourselves the permission to obsess over something else, namely the quality of our attention? The quality of attention we give to ourselves and to the people and issues that matter most to us. Because attention does more than enable us to achieve. It enables us to connect and engage.

When we wish for a “long life”, we wish for a sense of satisfaction, for a life well lived. So next time when you will feel rushed, remember that life can be fulfilling if you invest your time in the right things, the right people and the right experiences.

2020: The Human Decade

The end of the year always brings about many reflections for me, especially as we are about to step into a new decade, still in the middle of our global technology revolution.

And even though we only hear terms like tech or digital, we need to remember that this revolution is first and foremost a cultural transformation with humans in the driver’s seat.

For business leaders it is imperative in the coming decade to truly put humans at the center of their organizations. It’s all about creating positive employee experiences to make employees feel valued, appreciated, safe and energized to bring their best to work.

We need to take a close and hard look at how we define leadership, work and collaboration, saying goodbye to the old normal of “business as usual”. This may be painful but it will be an amazing window of opportunity.

We need to provide a “north star” that brings a sense of meaning and direction, showing us what place our organization and therefore also us as humans have in the world. We need to create a space for everyone where we can share knowledge and experience, continue to learn and have the time for critical and creative thinking. We need to ask ourselves how can we create more connection, kindness, wellness, diversity, inclusion and happiness even amid the crazy pace of technological change that we are feeling.

After all, humans have always been the driving force behind every innovation and will continue to be so.

Leaders who understand how to meaningfully invest in others will have a critical competitive advantage in the coming decade. Maybe we are already seeing a shift when looking at the announcement by The Business Roundtable Group of CEOs who said that we should start to move away from a sole focus on shareholders to a more balances purpose centred on all stakeholders.

I am excited and am looking forward to working with leaders as we move into the new decade to support you in seizing the vast opportunities to advance the work you do and the people you do it with in truly transformative ways with a focus on the humans inside your companies.