Building the Foundation of Effective Communication: Trust
Crises trigger some of the best and the worst responses from people. Emotions run high, and security and resilience professionals are under strain to find the most suitable response.
Last week, as I was attending a benchmarking meeting about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the meeting ended on this final note: "The most important thing right now is communication." This does not mean crisis communications—a specific technical expertise—but instead the communication that forms the bedrock of human-to-human relationships. But how can security and crisis management experts advance this effort?
When working as a corporate security and crisis management expert on the Arab Spring situation in the early 2010s, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or even a long kidnap and ransom case, I often felt a lot of frustration and sadness from my spotless and safe (home) office. I felt as though those plans and documents I had so carefully worked on and trained for could never help the situation or have a genuine impact on the crisis at hand. I had to go with the flow. I felt powerless.
But that was not necessarily the case. I could coordinate with government agencies, send a supporting team to evacuate our people and send them funds and all sorts of goods. I could book hotel rooms for them to have a safe space to stay. I could monitor the situation daily and ask our analysts to write intelligence papers to help us understand the situation better and get some visibility. There were so many other tactical actions I could take that counted.
Then, it dawned on me that amid all these disruptions my job was to put all my effort into how I communicate with my stakeholders: my peers, my team, my colleagues, the executives, and, most importantly, the people impacted directly or indirectly by the given crisis.
So, practically speaking, what does communication mean during a crisis?
To answer this question, let’s go back to basics. Communication is a two-way street. Whether by email, phone, WhatsApp, Telegram, or face-to-face, communication involves at least two people, and it requires a cardinal element for it to be effective: trust.
When the situation in Ukraine escalated on 24 February, the trust equation came back to me. Introduced in 2000 by David Maister in his book The Trusted Advisor, the formula says that trustworthiness equals the sum of credibility (C), reliability (R), and intimacy (I) divided by self-orientation (S).
Our credibility is our words and how believable we seem. Our reliability relates to our actions and how dependable we seem. Intimacy includes our emotions and how safe people feel sharing their own emotions, needs, expectations, and everything that matters to them with us. Finally, self-orientation, which sits alone in the denominator, is the most critical variable in the trust equation. Maister and his coauthors, Charles Green and Robert Galford, developed the formula to express that the less we focus on our personal interests, the more we can focus entirely on our stakeholders.
Such a focus is rare and requires intense self-awareness and self-management. Even the best crisis experts, managers, and leaders can have difficulty defocusing their self-orientation during an emergency. There are two main reasons for that: everyone looks up to these professionals to decide, support, and lead the way, and managing crises is stressful.
To translate the trust equation to the current crisis in Ukraine, when I connect with stakeholders involved and/or impacted by the crisis, it means that what I say I will do, I do; if I cannot do something, I say it; if I do not know something, I say that, too.
This also means using plain language that everybody understands. A crisis is not the time for fancy jargon that could be misinterpreted. As far as intimacy goes, I demonstrate vulnerability by admitting my fears and concerns, reacting to the emotions behind what is being said, expressing emotional candor, and having the courage to be human. Finally, when I address my stakeholders, I have a clear intention to demonstrate low self-orientation. I confirm my approach works for them and think aloud to be transparent and engaging. This approach does not make me less of a leader.
When I interact with my stakeholders and have these four variables right, the stakeholders trust me, and they listen to what I need from them. Suddenly, they start caring for my needs (the corporate plans and processes and the daily briefings for the corporate crisis management team, among other things) because purposeful communication creates a response in which people will start to emotionally engage with me in a reciprocal way.
Yes, it all comes down to reciprocity, another key concept in studies of influence and persuasion. But the leader needs to go all-in first. That is the leader’s job. That is what communicating means. It requires a very high degree of emotional intelligence and a daily self-check-up to make sure my stakeholders get the best of me as a trustworthy professional.
Once trust has been established through effective communication, a stronger bond starts to unite people. The sense of unity that emerges is an incredible byproduct of trust and is quite contrary to our job since we monitor the news 24/7 for cleaving situations, incidents, crises, disasters, and any other disruptive events. Yet, it is quite inappropriate to say that we need a break from the dividing news. It comes with the job description.
To get out of a crisis, any crisis, we need to focus on building unity through purposeful communication, ethical reciprocity, and authentic trust-building efforts with our stakeholders. The trust equation is one tool to accomplish this, and there are many others.
After all, even from afar and away from political offices and other governmental agencies where decisions are made, security and resilience professionals can have a true impact on crises. What if we focused on the fact that when we chose to, we are agents of peace?
Alexandra Hoffmann is the CEO of Crisis Ally, which helps crisis leaders and their teams build the right capabilities to thrive through crises. Hoffmann has an LLB in criminal law from Paris University, France; an M.Sc. in corporate security from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York; and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. She is a certified coach and yoga teacher.