Nancy Anderson, RN, MA

I recently listened to a senior care leader’s video address to his company’s employees. I marveled at the message he was sending and his ability to create a genuine connection with his listeners. Particularly impressive was his ability to speak candidly, even bluntly, about the reality of the COVID-19 crisis, while at the same time expressing faith and confidence in getting through the crisis. His words, his tone, his palpable sincerity — it was hopeful and healing. 

I’m reminded of insights shared by Admiral Jim Stockdale — a U.S. military officer during the Vietnam War — whose aircraft was shot down in 1965. He was held captive at a POW camp for over eight years, during which time he was repeatedly tortured by his captors. For eight long years, he was separated from family and friends, with no certainty as to if, or when, his imprisonment would end.

When Admiral Stockdale was asked how he got through this horrific experience, he responded:

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose —  with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

So, here we are in the middle of a crisis that is patently marked by fear and uncertainty. It seems to me that Admiral Stockdale’s mindset is exactly what we need to get through the current challenge:

Stay grounded in reality, while at the same time retain a deep belief that we will get through this.

This mindset must then be translated through the words and actions of leaders so that employees benefit from this strength of character. All employees — especially those at the frontline — need to see leaders confront and communicate the stark facts and hear you confidently and consistently express faith that together you will prevail.

REALITY – Communicate the facts

Speak the truth of what you know to be the facts right now. Don’t sugar coat the information or feel that you have to provide quick answers because you most likely don’t have all the answers! Help employees understand that the actions you’re taking now are based on the current information you have. And that these decisions may need to change as you receive new information. Emphasize that in an unprecedented situation like the COVID-19 crisis, you have to learn your way forward.

While candor and transparency are important, how do you do this without spreading panic? That’s where the other side of a balanced message comes in.

HOPE – Consistently express faith

In the face of overwhelming uncertainty, people want to know that leaders believe there is a way through this. If you’re transparent about not having all the answers at this moment, employees understand you may not know exactly how things will unfold. But they do need a sense of hope that there is a brighter future. In your messaging, provide hope that collectively you can face the challenge. Help employees recognize that the way to get through this is to believe in themselves and each other.

The character of leaders is tested in times of crisis, and your character is evident in everything you do and say. What employees need now are leaders who consistently convey a balance of faith and facts, communicating reality, combined with hope.

“I think character is permanent, and issues are transient.” – James Stockdale

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.