As a startup founder, you’ll need to accept having the tough conversations. Not everyone is good at it, and many will say they hate it. But through all the stages and processes of scaling a business, there’s inevitably going to be a hiccup, or even an all-out failure, sometime and somewhere. Whether it’s running out of funding, a sudden acquisition, or even the departure of a beloved employee, at some point you’re going to have to communicate some difficult news.
Luckily there are ways to handle this effectively, minimizing damage through poor communication or lack of any. Avoid hurt feelings or blindsiding by following this list of tips for effective crisis communication.
Assess the situation before you make any hasty decisions. When you first learn of the crisis, take some time to think about what key messages you’d like to send to employees, instead of allowing your own emotions to take over and prematurely reveal information to employees or the public. Plan out what information all involved parties would want or need to know. Plan out how employees will be able to counter-communicate with you and other company leadership. Plan out what responses you might receive from customers or investors. Plan out everything. It’s okay if you can’t be completely transparent with everyone, so don’t risk jumping the gun and revealing too much information ahead of time.
Show empathy to employees
One survey showed that while 60 percent of CEOs view their organization as being empathetic, only 1 in 4 employees share that view. The one thing that will turn employees off like no other is coldness to their feelings, so be sure to find ways to let them know that you recognize their feelings and perspectives and that you are making an effort to address them. Maintain eye contact, give feedback to their views, and don’t be afraid to let your emotions show too.
Open your door for communication
In a crisis, it may be counterproductive to totally open the floor for debate, but you can ask employees, investors and customers for their reactions. If you’d prefer, you can step away from the situation to provide “sinking in” processing time for internal stakeholders, and then allow employees to come directly to your office if they’d like to voice concerns. Make sure that everyone’s voices feel heard and not stifled, because your crisis communication will set precedents for how comfortable individuals will feel voicing their concerns to you in the future.
As much as you’d like to avoid the brunt of everyone’s wrath, the absolute worst avenue is to lie or suppress information that really needs to be made public. A crisis affects more than just you and that should be taken into consideration. Being transparent throughout the process builds trust between you and your employees, investors, and customers, while being dishonest creates a perception of cynicism or cowardice— not qualities of a leader.
Explain how the crisis came about
Whether the funding didn’t come through or a everyone’s favorite co-worker was suddenly fired, there was likely some build-up or semblance of a sign that the crisis would occur. Let employees know what transpired behind-the-scenes, how you attempted to mitigate what would happen, and how you will prevent this from happening in the future. Let them know how your decisions were and will be made moving forward. Studies show that people are more likely to accept an unfavorable outcome if they believe the decision-making process was sound.
Focus on the future
How will this crisis — honestly — affect your company in the future? This is something you should be able to answer upon revealing the crisis to employees. Will their jobs be affected? Will there be regulation, pay, or process changes? This may be the most important part, especially if big changes are ahead, such as a merger or acquisition. Be transparent about upcoming changes and let them know that you’re there to help make moving forward as seamless as possible.