Five ways leaders can create trust in times of uncertainty

The key to creating trust as a leader is clear communication – even in times of uncertainty when you don't have all the information

Clear communication of plans is difficult at the best of times for leaders. But having to do so in times of uncertainty, when the information on which those plans rely is constantly shifting, is even more so. Today, leaders are having to create trust and communicate their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic amid rapidly changing information flows. The knowledge they use to make decisions today, might not be the same next week. 

In this environment, it is more important than ever for leaders to decide on their communication style in order to engender trust in their messaging, according to Karin Sanders, Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School. 

"Even if you have the same information (or lack information) you can frame the message in different ways,” Prof. Sanders says. “We know that the way you share information has an influence on the wellbeing of trust. Because if you pretend every time that you know it all, and you don't know it all, people don't believe you anymore.” 

Prof. Sanders, who recently co-authored a paper on the effectiveness of senior leaders sharing information with their employees during uncertain crisis environments, recommends five ways leaders can engender trust in their communications when they themselves do not have all the information.  

Leader talks to employee virtually communicating to gain trust during uncertainty.jpeg
Leaders should be upfront about not having all the information. Image: Shutterstock

1. Be upfront if you don’t have all the information  

“Leaders, in general, find it difficult to be honest that they don't know it either,” says Prof. Sanders. “They can have the idea that as a leader, one needs to show that they know it all. But sometimes you don’t know it all. And then it's much better to be authentic and honest.” 

In a situation like COVID-19 with plenty of shifting variables, Prof. Sanders recommends leaders be clear and concise in their communications, outlining why they are making their decisions with the information currently available while making it clear that this information might change. “It's much better to be open and honest, how you make the decision,” she says. “If you have the message that ‘I know it all, this is what we are going to do’, and ‘I will take care of you’ that’s fine. But then you need to have a consistent story.” 

One way to avoid this pitfall and potentially risk damaging trust if plans fall through is to first admit fallibility from the offset, and secondly, be open in what information you are relying on when making decisions. 

Read more: HR strengths: three keys to effective employee crisis communication  

2. Try to keep messaging consistent around decisions and advice  

As far as possible, keep the message, direction and tone of communication consistent. In the study undertaken by Prof. Sanders and her colleagues, consistency was one of the attributes of messages that ranked high in building trust. “People want to have consistent information,” Prof. Sanders says. “If there's no consistency in messages, then people don't trust it anymore. For example, when saying ‘don’t rush for a vaccination’ then the next week saying, ‘please get a vaccination’, people don’t know what to do, as it might change again the next week.” 

This can be difficult in an environment where information flows are changing rapidly (which is where admitting fallibility is key), but Prof. Sanders says it is worth trying and making it clear to employees that there is a lot of uncertainty. 

Person receives emails on phone communication uncertainty trust leaders.jpeg
Consistent messaging helps build trust in leaders during times of uncertainty. Image: Shutterstock

3. When decisions are finalised, keep consensus across messaging 

As decisions change with new information coming to light, having the same message from all leaders across the organisation is vital, says Prof. Sanders. In the study, for example, the researchers found that when different senior managers kept messaging consistent, that university scored higher for communication effectiveness. 

"People at different levels should send out the same message,” she explains. In the public sphere, for example, the lack of consensus from state leaders as they receive new information is something that might confuse people, who may initially perceive them as being on the ‘same government team’.  

“We are all in Australia, but sometimes the people in different states are not working together,” Prof. Sanders says. “Then it becomes, in a way, scary and confusing. People just want to have clarity and feel secure and safe.” 

Read more: Rebuilding psychological safety in the workplace post-coronavirus

4. Be upfront about hard decisions – or risk low morale and alienation  

Making difficult organisational and staffing decisions is something that leaders have often had to do through the COVID-19 pandemic. As leaders receive new information, Prof. Sanders says communication needs to be handled delicately. 

“While the crisis is unpredictable and changing fast, you will know as a company leader that there can be a risk and that maybe not all the jobs are safe,” she says. “So, if you are really consistent and clear that the jobs are safe, and within two weeks make some people redundant, people don't trust management anymore." 

“Because even if [an employee's job] is safe, and it's not their job that is made redundant, people think ‘it's now my colleague, tomorrow I can be the one.' It's really bad for the morale.” 

Female leader shares information with employees building trust in a time of uncertainty.jpeg
Acknowledging the mental health of employees builds trust in times of uncertainty. Image: Shutterstock

5. Make it clear how people can help each other in the meantime. 

In times of uncertainty, it is vital that leaders acknowledge the importance of mental health and the community in their communications.  

“[At UNSW] in almost every email, at the base of it is how we can help each other,” says Prof. Sanders. “If you feel anxiety or if you have some mental health issues, here are web links, and please see your doctor. With this, one shows that maybe we don't know it all, but we are well aware that the whole situation can create anxiety and mental health issues, and that management tries to support their employees.” 

Karin Sanders is a Professor at UNSW Business School. Her research focuses on the HR process approach, in particular the impact of employees’ perceptions, understanding and attributions of HR on their attitudes and behaviours, such as their informal learning activities.


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