How to be an effective, crisis-ready healthcare leader

Strong leadership is always important, but especially in times of crisis. Leaders set themselves apart when they use their head and heart to respond, communicate and connect. Those who make this a priority are best able to maintain continuity and successfully move through a crisis situation.

Healthcare leaders have been dealing with high-risk, emotionally charged crises for much of 2020. The health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with issues of racial injustice, impact every aspect of how we work and live—and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Almost by definition, crises cause uncertainty and anxiety. Effective crisis communication and leaders who are ready to manage the situation can help health care organizations navigate both short-term and sustained crises with clarity and confidence.

Following are communication practices that will help health care leaders maintain and deepen trust in a crisis.

Communicate Consistently

One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is staying silent or going into hiding in crisis. These actions will immediately lead to suspicion and loss of trust. Instead, move quickly to frame the issue, put the situation in perspective and engage. Help people understand what’s happening and the actions being taken to move forward. When leaders step up with timely, clear and transparent communication, it keeps people from making incorrect assumptions or spreading false information.

Communicate information simply and factually through regular, proactive updates. Help people understand the “why” behind decisions to create understanding and focused engagement. Use a multi-channel approach to deliver a regular flow of trusted information that will put others at ease.

Listen to Learn

Health care organizations that don’t seek input from their employees and communities might misjudge how they are feeling or what their needs are, leading to communication that doesn’t resonate or, worse, alienates. Create feedback loops and listen in real-time to strengthen relationships by acknowledging how people are feeling, alleviating their worries, and meeting their needs. 

Leaders need to know what is on the hearts and minds of people in real-time during a crisis. Take time to actively listen to questions and concerns in order to meet them where they’re at and guide the conversation forward. Leaders who authentically demonstrate empathy and understanding are best able to ease uncertainty and stress. Showing you care is never the wrong move unless it is insincere.

Needs and expectations will often shift during a crisis, and related strategies must adapt and evolve accordingly. Communication tools—including surveys, feedback channels, and social media—provide valuable, direct listening and engagement opportunities. The insights learned can help health care leaders avoid a tone-deaf response and make informed adjustments for the future.

Be Ready to Tell Your Story

Organizations navigating a crisis are often faced with high-stakes media interview requests which may put health care leaders and physicians in the public eye. These are important opportunities to frame the situation and provide clear perspective. Knowing how to tell an effective story; manage a media interview; and earn accurate, high-value coverage are essential skills for leaders to master before a crisis strikes.

Leverage internal communication platforms and technology to inform and engage employees. Post regular and frequent updates to the organization’s intranet, deliver “face-to-face” leadership messages using video conferencing and survey employees to gauge their feelings. Employee communications should reinforce and model the institution’s purpose, mission and values to ground the culture and guide day-to-day work.

Lead by Example

Leaders play a critical role in moving health care organizations forward by setting clear expectations and acting in alignment with values. During a crisis, it is especially important for leaders to be present and engaged while modeling calm behavior. Leaders must step up in their words and actions by delivering messages that set expectations and inspire.

As the immediate crisis begins to stabilize, leaders have an opportunity to innovate and share how the health care organization will emerge strong and be ready to serve a changed marketplace. Communication is critical at this time to create confidence, action, and engagement.

Drive Growth and Change

As organizations move through the crises, leaders have a unique opportunity to re-ground and re-imagine the path forward. This work begins as soon as the immediate crisis response is managed and the situation begins to stabilize.Encourage employees to contribute by sharing input and ideas on how the organization can recover, move forward, and evolve.

A crisis can challenge health care leaders to think creatively and solve problems in new ways. Tapping into that mindset can positively differentiate the organization going forward. Use communication to maintain stability, instill confidence in the future and inspire a refreshed vision. Provide clear, consistent updates and take time to celebrate progress and the contributions of others.

The COVID-19 pandemic is compelling the health care industry and its leaders to work differently, think in new ways, and creatively solve challenges. There is an opportunity right now (as with any crisis) to listen, learn, innovate, and communicate to emerge strong and ready to serve a changed marketplace.