This is the second in a three-part series on communicating effectively during crisis developed by The Holdsworth Center. To see the first installment, click here.
Mandy Land doesn’t like receiving praise. It makes her feel squeamish. But as principal of Doerre Intermediate in Klein ISD, she views praising others as a core part of her job.
“Because it doesn’t come naturally to me, I have to be very intentional about it,” Mandy said.
Since she’s better at being mushy on paper, she has a stack of cards printed with her Bitmoji and phrases like “Thanks Superstar!” or “How are you doing?” She writes around 20 cards per week to staff members, making sure that everyone gets some love and appreciation.
This prolonged crisis requires more sharing than ever before, in new ways and with more frequency.
When we hear the word “communication,” we often think of formal channels such as a newsletter, emails or presentations. But communication also comes in the form of gifts and compliments, informal chats in the hallway, conversations in the break room, or the wave of a hand or a smile.
Being a skilled communicator like Mandy means being aware of – and intentional about – all the ways in which you are communicating and being curious about how they are being received.
To build skill in this area, leaders must ensure they are not “hoarding” four important things that would make them great communicators – information, power, praise and their true self.
Don’t be a hoarder
When we hear the word “hoarder,” we think of people who compulsively collect things until they are buried in their own junk. Or perhaps the people who run out and buy up toilet paper or bottled water during an emergency.
People can hoard intangible resources in the same way. Withholding information, power, praise and your true self from others may feel like a survival instinct, a way to protect yourself or others. But in reality, stuffing those things inside can lead to inner turmoil and a breakdown in the ability to be an effective leader and communicator.
When leaders stop operating this way, they not only lift a weight off of themselves but people around them see them as better, more authentic leaders.
#1 Share information
This boils down to one key behavior – be as transparent as possible. Share what you know, often as soon as you know it, with as many people as appropriate.
Certainly, there are times when information is confidential or simply not relevant to a particular group, and the leader must use good judgment. But when there is relevant information to share – and especially when people are asking for it – share it.
This prolonged crisis requires more sharing than ever before, in new ways and with more frequency. It can’t be done on autopilot.
A great leader makes people feel like they are on the best team in America, and that team couldn’t function without them.
When the pandemic hit and Klein ISD made a swift transition to remote learning, Mandy’s information sharing practices went into overdrive. She met daily with her leadership team – sometimes multiple times per day – and held faculty meetings every morning for a week. She started a rolling FAQ on Google docs that all teachers could access. Mandy would check it four or five times per day and make sure to answer questions as they popped up. Parents also received some communication from the school or from teachers at least three times per week.
Mandy didn’t always have a quick or tidy answer to every question – and she certainly could not quell every fear or uncertainty – but people trusted that she wasn’t holding back on them.
Several months into the crisis, Mandy has scaled back to a weekly newsletter – Doerre News for staff and The Arrow for the broader community. In each there’s a link for staff and parents to provide feedback on four key questions: How are things going? What worked well this week? What can we improve? What support do you need?
That feedback not only gives her a good pulse on how people are feeling, it has exposed places where communication is breaking down or extra support is needed. Alerted to a problem with students getting locked out of Zoom classes, for instance, Mandy created a system to provide real-time technical help to students.
#2 Share power
A great leader makes people feel like they are on the best team in America, and that the team couldn’t function without them. That requires sharing power with others.
Be intentional about giving others the opportunity to lead meaningful work, and grant agency over how they get it done. Also recognize that you as the leader are not always the expert. If there’s a complex problem to solve, tap into the collective strengths and expertise of the team instead of toiling alone.
Sharing power does not mean throwing people into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim, or simply offloading tasks that you don’t like to do. It’s about creating a team that functions like the San Antonio Spurs. Coach Greg Popovich doesn’t tolerate superstars and heroes. Everyone on the court is important and players work together to win.
You might be wondering how this makes you a better communicator. First, you can’t be everywhere at the same time. You need others to help you deliver important messages and gather their feedback in return.
Second, what do you think is more effective – telling people what to do, or engaging them in the work of figuring out what to do? Which person is going to be a better ambassador to communicate to the wider community? The person who helped you build the solution, or the one who is just delivering the message?
At Doerre, Mandy has built a core leadership team of 10 – three assistant principals, four curriculum specialists, the lead counselor and a behavior specialist. It’s not just Mandy who runs the school – it’s all of them.
“If I tried to do it all myself, there is just no way,” Mandy said. “I have built a team who is here to do what’s best for kids. They are my boots on the ground.”
When the school received information from the district on how to take attendance for both remote and in-person students, she brought it to the team immediately and they dissected it together.
“It was very complicated, but because we worked it out together, they knew the policy backwards and forwards and were able to articulate it as well as me,” Mandy said. As a result, the team was able to clearly explain the policy to teachers and not a single question got kicked up to Mandy.
Mandy also leans on and empowers department chairs because “they are the first line of contact for teachers.” They not only ensure teachers’ voices are heard at the administrative level, but that teachers understand the decisions leaders are making and why.
#3 Share praise
No one intends to withhold praise from others. Sometimes we just get busy and forget, or we assume that people already know they are doing a good job. If they weren’t, you’d let them know, right? Another possibility is that we are frustrated with ourselves, making it difficult to spread a kindness we don’t feel inside.
But in challenging times, people need to hear praise and positive affirmation from the leader. They need messages that say, “you matter,” and “hang in there.”
Your ability to be an effective communicator hinges on trust.
Like Mandy, this may not come naturally for every leader, and that’s OK. Like Mandy with her Bitmoji cards, you can intentionally structure it into your daily practice.
In addition to the cards, Mandy does a weekly treat in the teacher’s lounge during lunch. Popcorn and soda or milk and cookies – she gets them down there with food, but next to the spread is a stack of blank notes so they can write shout-outs and gratitude to their colleagues.
And since Mandy is also skilled at sharing power, her leadership team shares the load. This year the school has adopted a rock n’ roll theme and each member of the leadership team has a “band.” They are frequently checking in with their bandmates face to face or via text, post cards or emails.
How does she know her strategies are working?
“I get a lot of emails saying thank you for your note, it meant a lot. And I see that many people post the cards in their workspace,” Mandy said.
#4 Share your true self
Early in the pandemic, Mandy was on a Zoom meeting with her bosses and fellow principals when she heard a scream from upstairs in her house. Without thinking to hit mute, she tore upstairs to find that her daughter’s fish, Mr. Bubbles, had expired.
Down on the call, everyone listened as she told her daughter to quickly flush the fish down the toilet, a suggestion that was met with a tearful protest.
When she returned to the meeting and realized she wasn’t muted, she was completely mortified.
She knew that staff were anxious about similar intrusions happening when they were teaching from home. So on the first staff development day, she told them the story of Mr. Bubbles.
“I wanted to let them know they were not alone and that it would be OK,” she said.
Heidi Brooks, a lecturer on leadership at Yale University, says that leaders often try to project an image of themselves as uber competent, bulletproof, someone who is always on point and never gets anything wrong. But that’s not real life. No leader is perfect.
And the truth is that no one expects – or even wants – their leader to be perfect.
Heidi says this: “Demonstrate and show your humanity. Show that you have thoughts and feelings that are not perfectly formed, that you are not robotic and distant. That you have questions about yourself and the world, that you are able to be impacted emotionally by events and people, that you have questions about your own journey and impact – showing that is a process with honor, not shame.”
Sharing your true self does not mean emotionally dumping on everyone you see. It means not living a double life. If you feel like you are one person at home and an entirely different person at work, that’s a red flag. If you’re putting on an act, people won’t buy it and you will have a hard time earning their trust.
As uncomfortable as it is, there will be times when you need to be vulnerable and share your struggles and questions, to make mistakes in front of people or admit you don’t know and ask for help. Be there for others, but also let them be there for you.
Your ability to be an effective communicator hinges on trust. If people don’t feel like they know you and can trust you, they may not believe what you tell them, or wonder if you have a hidden agenda.
At Doerre, Mandy shares her true self in different ways. In the company of her core leadership team, she can vent frustrations over a snack of Oreo cookies, or admit when she is feeling discouraged. In front of her staff, she needs to stay positive and supportive, but also show them that she is human.
Hence the Mr. Bubbles story. Mandy also saw a big shift in morale when she made a video to model teaching a Zoom class with some kids online and some kids in person. It did not go perfectly. You could see her struggling with volume controls and the placement of her keyboard, and then realizing that in-person and online students could not have their mics on at the same time.
“I told them, ‘I am not perfect. There are bugs to work out and we just have to do our best.’ After that, I could feel the panicky responses I was getting in feedback start to dwindle.”
Think over the events of the last couple of weeks – can you think of times when you shared information, power, praise and your true self with others? What was the result? How about a time when you hoarded one of these valuable resources? How did that play out?