Laura Petrolino

Use Internal Communications to Eliminate False Fears

By: Laura Petrolino | March 2, 2020 | 
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How to Use Internal Communications to Eliminate False Fears Among Your TeamThe coronavirus is top of every news story.

The stock market plummeted.

The U.S. presidential election leaves a lot of unknown ahead.

There are a lot of reasons to be anxious.

And when our feathers are flustered and our hair is standing on end, we tend to also be highly susceptible to false fears.

So do our teams. Our clients. And everyone we work with.

This sets up a dangerous situation.

False fears unattended become real problems.

So how do we ensure we keep everyone feeling safe and secure?

False fears require a heavy dose of empathetic and consistent internal communications.

This is something we need to put in place within our own organizations and help our clients develop, as well.

What are False Fears?

False fears take on two major forms:

  • Non-existent fear
  • Misplaced fear

Both false fears cause actions (or reactions) that are misdirected.

And we all know actions taken out of fear are almost never productive, and more often than not, they’re destructive.

In an organization, this can spell disaster.

What Causes False Fears?

A lot of different factors may cause false fears and encourage team members to be much more likely to jump to conclusions:

  • Miscommunication
  • Lazy internal communications
  • Lack of internal communications
  • Inappropriate type of communication method
  • A culture that thrives on fear and overreaction
  • Employees who come from cultures that thrived on fear and overreaction (past history)
  • Other environmental influences external from the organization (a friend who has gone through similar issues, for example)
  • Individual personality traits. (Type A people are often really horrible at this because of their tendency to over-analyze…every situation. Or so I’ve heard. I don’t know anything about that personally, of course.)

As you can see, the stimulus causing false fears come from multiple places including organizational culture, environment, personalities, leadership, and background.

This means that, no matter how great a leader you might be, or how amazing and open a culture you develop, false fears will still occur.

The Solution to False Fears: Internal Communications 

Wait for it…it’s something we all know and love.

Yes, that’s it! Communication. Specifically internal communications!

Most false fears can be completely eliminated with a few small tweaks in how we communicate with our teams. 

For example, how many have experienced this situation or something similar?

Person A says: “Hey Person B, remind me we need to discuss XXXX.”

Person B hears: “You stupid nitwit Person B, you’ve royally screwed up. This client is angry, this team member is upset, and there is a zombie apocalypse upon us….and it’s all your fault.”

Then, while you wait to talk to Person A (who in your mind is busy dealing with the approaching zombie takeover as a result of your actions, inactions, or mistakes), the possible scenario becomes bigger and bigger in your head.

Communicators and Internal Communications

Communicators are the worst when it comes to being the cobbler’s children with no shoes. The baker’s kids with no bread. The dairy farmer’s kids with no milk. You get my point.

And this is particularly true in internal communications.

I think because communications are what we do, we often just think our internal communication is implied. It’s not.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to always strive to communicate in a way that makes your team feel confident and secure.

If your team is constantly jumpy, worried, and overreactive, that is a sign YOU are doing something wrong.

The people you work with should feel confident that if a zombie apocalypse occurs on their watch, you’d clearly and rapidly communicate this fact and not leave it up for interpretation.

Personality Buffering: One-to-One Internal Communications

Some people are going to have more of a tendency to over-respond than others.

And those folks might need to be managed through extra proactive internal communication.

Over-communicate so they have facts to combat their mind’s maze of cortisol.

Make sure you check-in with them often and follow-up often if there is any news or event that could send them down a fear spiral.

Clarify if something is not their fault (or if it is, just don’t leave it up to interpretation).

This type of empathetic communication is what differentiates leaders from managers.

And, while it may take extra time, it is well worth it in the long-run.

Remember, often the team members who are the most worried about events and stability also care the most and pay attention to details.

It’s worth investing this extra bit of care to make sure they feel secure and aware.

False Fear-Free Broadcast Communications

One-to-one communication isn’t always possible.

Additionally, it’s required must less if the internal communication strategy from the very top prioritizes a communication style and culture which minimizes false fears.

This isn’t easy.

The farther removed from leadership a person is, the greater the chance of false fears developing (just think about how the game of telephone works).

Fear is transmitted in similar ways.

In situations like that, precise communication is particularly important. 

Look at the “how,” “who,” and “when.”

How You Deliver Your Message is Crucial

Just like you absolutely shouldn’t break up with someone over text, you should also be very aware and specific about how you deliver messages that might be interpreted as negative.

When delivering any sort of news of this kind, do it “in person.”

This might be as easy as a staff meeting (although be careful to not make staff meetings places people start associating with negative news only), a company-wide online or in-person announcement, a webinar, or some other internal forum where you can vocally and physically explain the situation to people.

Plan this internal communication delivery like you would any other externally focused crisis communication announcement.

Be clear and specific with the words you choose.

And always, always, always provide the opportunity for follow-up, feedback, or questions.

Even better: make it more of a conversation vs. an announcement.

Don’t be a seagull and just fly in and poop on everything, then leave.

Who Do You Tell What?

While transparency is good, it doesn’t mean you need to tell everyone, everything.

The situation should be clear to all team members, but higher levels of management or those more intimately involved have the right to know more.

Plus, in most cases, they will better understand it within a proper context, which helps lessen misaligned fears.

Also, be careful to respect the different layers of an organization.

Often those in higher positions feel sideswiped and disrespected if major news is broken to the entire company together, without them having any knowledge or preparation.

When you plan out the delivery of news, outline who knows what, when. 

For example, your middle managers can often be the best ally in helping to further reinforce and communicate the message to those who report to them.

Having them prepared as mini-internal spokespeople can prove to be very valuable in preventing lots of false fears at lower levels.

When Do You Deliver News?

Timing is everything, but early internal communication is normally best.

While you don’t want to tell people things too soon and without adequate or reliable information, you also don’t want to wait and have to deliver to a rumor filled team.

People like to be kept updated.

They will forgive uncertainty as long as they feel confident they’ll be provided with as much information as possible, as soon as possible.

If you have developed a culture where people trust you, they will trust your communication as well.

Even if it’s developing news.

Whatever you do, don’t wait for the rumor mill to steal the show before you get a word in.

Respect Lessens Fear

Overall, false fears, while always a threat, will be lessened when you:

  • Develop a culture of trust and respect
  • Think through your internal communications methods and style
  • Acknowledge that people are affected greatly by the things you say or do and how you say or do them

False fears are a virus in an organization.

Strategic internal communication and a culture of inclusion and trust are the vaccines. 

How do you communicate news internally with your team? Share your stories in the comments below.

Image by Alexas Fotos from Pixabay

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.