The 4 Cs of Communication Through Uncertainty 

leadership management Apr 30, 2020

I'm sure you have a million things on your mind. There are so many things happening at once. Some folks are just now starting to settle into virtual routines, others are moving from one physical location to another to allow for deep cleaning and preparation for larger groups, and some are actively planning your re-entry strategy. In addition to just keeping up with all of the expectations associated with planning, many people have been expressing to me how just doggone tired we are. I'm tired, too. 

So for those of you who, like me, are feeling exhausted, I want to share 4 simple Cs to remember as you communicate: 1) Clarity, 2) Consistency, 3) Care and 4) Continuity. Though they sound pretty straightforward, I encourage you to think about how you can use simple structured approaches to help make your lifting lighter. Read on to get some ideas. 

Clarity

Be clear about what is happening, even when you’re not certain about all of the details. This is particularly difficult in an environment where information changes quickly and there are various versions. So keep it simple: “This is the most current information we have at this time…”, “from these trusted and/or relevant (i.e. state governor, Board of Trustees) sources…”, and “What we believe to be the most critical impacts for our organization are…”, “...our work…”, “...you…”. Use this formula to continue sharing updates as information changes. It also allows you to refer back to information that was previously shared but needs to be revised: “On Tuesday we told you...we have now received updated information that overrides information previously shared…” 

People process information differently, so be prepared to share using a variety of formats. For example, a thorough email may be helpful for some and overwhelming for others. So if email is going to be used to share updates, use subheadings or incorporate bulleted lists into the text to break up the content. I also strongly recommend using simple visuals, for example, a timeline that can be used over and over again to depict actions taken, next steps, and progress over time. 

Consistency 

Consistent communication practices are a great opportunity to create experiences of certainty amidst a whirlwind of change. Some organizations, for example, are sending out email updates every day. This is a great practice. However, it can be taxing for one person or unit to solely manage. Instead, perhaps you can create a communication calendar so that different divisions or departments take lead responsibility for communicating updates on a specific day of the week. 

Templates are another simple and effective way to ensure consistency. Outline 3-4 areas that need to be addressed in all communication. A simple template framework might include: 

  • What we know now
  • Priorities for immediate action
  • Implications for:
    • our people
    • our work
    • service/production continuity  
  • Mechanisms for additional information and input 

A simple template provides an agreed-upon approach that can be reused between divisions, people, and over time. 

Care

Balance communicating facts with talking about feelings. Change, especially unplanned change over which no one has control, is filled with deep emotion. Let people know that you care about them as colleagues, valued members of our community, and human beings. Expressions of care include sharing your own vulnerability. In the midst of uncertainty like we are experiencing now, leadership is not about strength. Rather, it's about solid, trustworthy, and honorable efforts to nurture each other and a shared path forward. 

Continuity 

One of the most difficult communication challenges within a large organization is ensuring information flows across divisions. The challenge is often tied to stylistic differences between managers: Word choices, modes, frequency of communication, and degree to which feedback is sought, received, and shared. These kinds of differences can translate into uneven distribution of information, which can lead to informal spread of information or misinformation, people feeling like they aren’t getting information in a timely manner, or lack of alignment with feedback channels that promote the useful flow of information. 

Continuity of information is enabled by a thoughtful approach to process. A thoughtful process requires people in key decision-making and communicator roles to focus on not just the messaging of communication but the flow of information. Importantly, flow must take into account formal and informal channels, timing, impact on various stakeholders, and create and make use of feedback channels. Tools like messaging decks make it easy to equip leaders, managers, and others responsible for communicating with the language and structure to promote continuity across the organization while allowing for personal and division-specific customization. 

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