In the Midst of COVID-19 Uncertainty, Trusted Leadership Is Critical

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by Melanie Meador & Noah Zandan

The novel coronavirus (aka COVID-19) continues to spread at an alarming pace, shutting down small businesses, moving classrooms and offices online, and (somewhat inexplicably) sending toilet paper flying off grocery shelves. But conflicting information, misinformation, and uncertainty are spreading as fast as the virus itself, stirring up anxiety and outright panic on one hand and fostering equally dangerous apathy on the other.

What we need during this time (aside from the rapid development of a vaccine) is effective leadership in both government and business. We need leaders to communicate in a way that inspires confidence and unifies communities.

More than anything, leaders must become laser focused on building trust with their employees, their customers, or their constituents so that we, as a society, can feel confident that we accurately understand the present circumstances, the steps leadership is taking to keep us safe, and the role we, as individuals, should be playing in flattening the curve.

So, what does it take to build that kind of trust?

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures society’s trust in government, businesses, media, and NGOs across the globe, reports that trust is built on a leader’s ability to demonstrate two strengths: competence and ethics. In other words, in order to earn trust, leaders must demonstrate both that they are shaping their decisions and perspectives based on knowledge and ability and that they are acting with society’s best interest at heart.

While leaders must “walk the walk” or follow through on the promises they make, the foundation of that trust is their communication. Quantified’s research on the characteristics of trustworthy communication supports Edelman’s two main building blocks. Let’s break those down in order to outline how leaders should craft their messaging—and what individuals should demand of leaders in every forum—during this time of uncertainty.

Building Trust by Demonstrating Competence

A key step to establishing trust as a leader is making it clear that you have a strong command over the subject matter. So when you’re explaining a decision the company has made in the wake of COVID-19 or outlining recommendations for individual behaviors, be ready and willing to go deeper than “because I said so.”

Dig deep. Be prepared to explain why and how you’ve reached your conclusions, why you’ve rejected certain positions in favor of the one you’ve adopted, and what you envision happening and not happening as a result. For example, a recent Quantified analysis of Fortune 100 executives found the leaders who were savvy about building trust used 33.9 percent more “cause-and-effect” language (e.g., “but” and “although” phrases) than their counterparts, demonstrating the ability to talk about not only what is happening but what isn’t.

Stay positive. Our research has found that dishonest communicators tend to use highly negative language. The Fortune 100 analysis also found that the leaders who most effectively build trust through communication demonstrate 26.2 percent less negative sentiment than their peers. So, to build trust, we recommend leaders stay positive. Now, let’s be clear: this does not mean sweeping the problem under the rug or minimizing its severity in order to save face.

Focus on the solution. Being positive means framing the conversation around solutions rather than dwelling in the catastrophe. This goes back to a leader’s ability to talk about why she’s taken certain positions or what she expects to happen as a result. Framing the conversation around solutions—or, at least, steps people can take—helps audiences view the leader as someone who knows how to solve problems and protect their people, and it allows them to leave with a sense of purpose, or mission, rather than overwhelming anxiety.

A leader who offers concrete solutions, drills down below the surface, and provides supporting material in the form of data and expert input builds credibility and demonstrates a commitment to complete, accurate information. A leader who makes blanket statements with no support, operates on hunches rather than data, or uses PR spin to downplay what’s really happening, is far less credible or trustworthy.

Building Trust Through Ethics

Edelman cites ethics as the more important of its two building blocks for trust:

Trust is undeniably linked to doing what is right. After tracking 40 global companies over the past year through our Edelman Trust Management framework, we’ve learned that ethical drivers such as integrity, dependability and purpose drive 76 percent of the trust capital of business, while competence accounts for only 24 percent.

Be accountable, and don’t play the blame game. Our research supports the overwhelming importance of demonstrating personal ethics as a key ingredient of trust. Most importantly in times of crisis, this means taking personal accountability. The most powerful way to do this is by using first-person pronouns such as “I” and “we” to demonstrate your personal connection to the topic and your belief.” Our research has found that the Fortune 100 executives who are most effective at building trust though communication use 24.5 percent more personal pronouns than their peers.

Instead of dwelling on past shortcomings or pointing fingers, trusted leaders quickly and definitively accept any errors committed as their own and then address the steps required to rectify and move forward.

When leaders place blame or use passive voice to skirt responsibility (think: “mistakes were made”), any foundation of trust erodes. Instead, use “I” and “we” language to embrace both what you’ve done in the past and what you’re doing now.

Get real. Additionally, authentic communication speaks to a leader’s ethics and integrity. Audiences can spot PR spin a mile away, and when leaders put on airs or communicate differently to different audiences, audiences begin to wonder what they’re hiding. Now more than ever, leaders must focus on congruence, bringing their true selves to every audience. When it comes to communication skills, Quantified’s research shows a significant correlation (.75) between speakers’ authenticity and their ability to build trust with their audiences.

You can learn more about the science of authenticity in our recent CEO Authenticity Ranking, but the most important thing to remember is that when leaders remain emotionally and physically open in every interaction, this enables them to show audiences that they are fully engaged and committed to the process of overcoming the crisis.

Establish Trust through Communication and Maintain It through Swift Action

Even in the best of times, it’s incumbent upon leaders in every sphere to build trust with their audiences—and then maintain that trust through action. But in times like this, when we’re in uncharted waters and fear and uncertainty are driving the public response, it’s more important than ever. Society is desperately searching for leaders they can trust to guide them through this crisis. Becoming those leaders and developing that trust begins with the way we communicate.

Learn how Quantified Communications can help your executives can improve leadership communication in crisis.