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Communicating Through Ambiguity: Building Trust in Times of Uncertainty

Sara Whitman and Isabel Conrad

As economic volatility and uncertainty persevere, feelings of discomfort and unease are ever present within the workplace. Communications professionals can draw upon hard lessons learned during COVID to lead through this ambiguity and relied on to help build trust and confidence among employees. 

Here’s a refresh of what the last few years proved, and how we should approach communications in the future. 

Establish consistent and clear communication: Utilize existing communication platforms to engage with employees on a reliable basis. Having a consistent weekly newsletter or a monthly all-hands to keep employees informed creates anchor points for employees. Having reliable and consistent communication means your employees will know where to turn if they begin to feel uneasy.

Encourage people to show up authentically: Many companies will choose to acknowledge a situation and its potential impacts on the business. This is an important step to building trust, but it can also contribute to feelings of uneasiness. Recognize that people are feeling a wide range of emotions, and communicate that whatever they're feeling is normal and acceptable. Focus on well-being resources and encourage employees to show up authentically at work. Having an outlet for open dialogue and expressing concerns will allow you to better meet your employees’ needs.

Increase face-time with executives: The executive team plays a critical role in establishing trust during uncertain times. Having leadership show up authentically to address timely concerns can help put employees at ease and promote employees’ desire to show up authentically. Meetings where the leadership team addresses key concerns, such as coffee chats with the CEO or AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions, are great ways to begin to foster a culture of trust.

Establishing and building trust is a key component to employee satisfaction, and it is nothing short of critical when navigating times of uncertainty. Right now employers have an opportunity to lean into these practices. By implementing consistent and reliable communication practices, listening to employee concerns and leading with empathy, you enable a relationship of deep trust to help buoy your team through difficult times. 

Recommended Tools and Resources to Earn Trust (For Internal Communicators)

There are a number of tools and resources that can enable a cohesive experience for employees. Here are a few that we’ve found to be most effective:

  • Channel Strategy: Having a clear articulation of what types of communications go to which channels creates effective guardrails on your content. Channel strategy ensures the consistency and clarity employees need during times of uncertainty. We’d recommend sharing a simplified version of your channel strategy somewhere that is easily accessible to all employees (i.e., the intranet or digital asset manager) for employees to reference.
  • Best Practices Communications Playbook: Best practices exist for internal communications, but they will differ based on your company's tools, tone, and approach. Having an easily accessible source of truth for how you should communicate in these circumstances is incredibly helpful. The process you and your team go through in creating a tool like this will require you to ask the tough questions and get clear on your approach, which helps your team stay focused and true in the face of ambiguity. A decision-making framework is a piece of this guide we’d encourage you not to miss!
  • Pulse Surveys: We cannot stress how important understanding employee sentiment is when developing a communications strategy. Operating on our assumptions about what employees are thinking can leave employees feeling unseen and unheard. Being asked and then having an anonymous forum to share openly helps create a culture of psychological safety, which is a critical component to establishing trust within an organization. 
  • Open Discussion Forums: A resource for employees to have an open and honest dialogue with their coworkers can come in many forms. Slack and Teams are common tools, but this can also occur in the chat section of a company meeting or designated listening sessions to engage in conversations.
  • Manager/People Leaders: Managers and people leaders are a direct connection to your employees, and they can make or break an employee’s experience with a company. A recent study showed 82% of employees would consider leaving their current role because of a bad manager. Giving managers and people leaders the tools and resources they need to support their direct reports is critical. They will frequently be the face of change, and how they deliver the message and follow through with support will have a huge impact.