Communicating Through Trauma and Uncertainty 
An employee dies. A nearby residential building burns to the ground. Employees are laid off. A local school shooting has traumatized your entire workforce. A tornado tears through your headquarters city. A long-anticipated product launch is canceled. The violent deaths of Tyre Nichols and George Floyd shock the nation. 

Reports of anxiety permeating the workplace and our nation are widespread. Trauma can impact one employee, a work team, or an entire community. Our societal culture has shifted, making leadership communications more complicated – and more critical. Because our workplaces have become populations living in a perpetual state of uncertainty, this demands different kinds of professional communication – and more of it. 

In organizations, especially those with more people and more locations, the greater the chance that trauma or uncertainty will impact your employee population. Depending on the type of traumatic event, it is common, even protocol, for management to distribute a statement of sympathy or empathy, and when relevant, to offer support resources. Too often, these words and deeds are one-time and short-lived, while the sadness, fear, anxiety, or loss may linger.
COVID-19, for example, has evolved from a crisis lockdown into a new fact of life. While COVID may not have risen to a level of trauma except for those directly impacted by deaths or long-term illness, the shift to a remote or hybrid work model has permanently changed how we operate. People – at work, home and in our communities – have had both shared and unique experiences that have caused them to adjust their mindsets, many for the long haul.

According to industrial organizational psychologist Tonille Miller, founder of EXT - Experience and Transformation, there is a difference between a singular traumatic event and this new phase of perpetual uncertainty, and in the U.S., leaders may not be fully prepared to navigate through these different circumstances. “We need to rethink how we treat people and engage them in ways that are sustainable, ongoing, meaningful and relevant,” Miller advises. “They need to find ways to be resilient between all of the major changes and minor challenges that are constantly coming.” 

“There’s been a return to autocratic behavior, and gaslighting of sorts to get people back to the office, ignoring that we have just gone through a trauma and are still finding our way forward,” Miller says. She finds it concerning that many leaders are bypassing the reality of what people are feeling…and presenting what she calls “toxic positivity” to encourage people to “keep on striving and get ‘back to normal’.” 

It is important that leaders let their teams know that they are sensitive to what might be happening in the news or in the neighborhood, while at the same time respecting people’s boundaries and acknowledging that everyone is impacted differently, recommends Rachel Moheban-Wachtel, LCSW, at The Relationship Suite counseling center. 

From her experience with clients across many organizations as a crisis care and trauma management provider, Moheban-Wachtel has found that every company is distinct and that people at a tech company or an advertising agency will react in their own way, based on the operational, analytic, or creative mindset that attracts them to the type of work they do.

In times of uncertainty, Moheban-Wachtel says, “it is so important to show people you care. When there are layoffs, a recession and so much going on, you want to be sure that employees know that they are doing well and encourage them to keep up their great work.” 

A new day for communicating

Unusual times call for us to rethink our approach to communications. This means that the CEO and C-Suite need to take a fresh look at how they connect with their organizations and stakeholders, rethinking tone, content, channel, and frequency. Further, individuals at all levels of the organization need to think of themselves as messengers and agents of stability.

• Build culture – Now is the time to determine how your workplace culture reflects your values and your brand, is unique and is suited to attract and retain talent. Does your culture motivate employees to be proud of what they do, or are they regularly rocked by instability? How does your corporate culture inform how customers and the marketplace consistently see your brand?

• Listen, learn and grow – Don’t assume that because something is not affecting you personally that others are not concerned, distracted or uncomfortable. Speak with – and listen to -- your employees to understand what could be on their minds and how what is happening around them is affecting them and their teams. Consider how leadership may guide or support their sense of belonging and engagement in the organization and start doing this now.

• Show empathy – CEOs and managers who email a blanket layoff memo to employees or who hide behind an impersonal statement to the press will not be seen as caring about anyone – other than perhaps themselves. Tone-deaf communications that demonstrate ignorance about the ongoing challenges and feelings experienced by an important segment of an employee or customer population can severely damage a brand. 

• Be accessible – We all need to get more comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. Leaders need to ponder issues of the day and shape a clear and thoughtful response. It is not enough to give a speech at the annual employee Town Hall. Be present throughout your organization through multiple channels, from the intranet and social media to employee emails and newsletters, to joining in-person and remote meetings on timely topics. People will notice your presence and feel your absence just as profoundly.

Although people are resilient and often bounce back after difficult times, traumatic events and ongoing uncertainty may disrupt our sense of order and ability to focus on the business at hand. It is up to leaders to keep multiple lines of communication open, relevant and adaptable to keep organizations sound.

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 Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications helps companies build reputations and differentiate in a competitive market through thought leadership, public education, issues management, content strategy, and strategic communications. 

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