COVID-19 has turned our personal and professional lives upside down. With most lockdown restrictions now easing, our thoughts inevitably turn to the question of what happens next.
I retired from the Metropolitan Police in 2018, but for nine years before that, I led the Hostage & Crisis negotiation Unit based at New Scotland Yard, London. Lockdown gave me time to pause and reflect on my experiences during that time, working with COBR and advising Prime Ministers and senior politicians in the UK. There are some interesting parallels between the doctrine and principles of hostage and crisis negotiation and the situation in which we currently find ourselves.
The anatomy of a crisis
For business leaders contemplating the possibility of a return to some semblance of normality, the practicalities of how best to do this may well be causing a few sleepless nights. We know that this year’s events have far-reaching implications not just for the economy, but people’s physical, emotional and mental wellbeing too. Which is why re-engaging your workforce and providing a sense of security will play a crucial part in determining how your organization emerges from this crisis.
My observations, drawn from experiences at a strategic and tactical level of negotiations, are relevant in this context as well – let me explain why.
Patience, perseverance and persistence
Your workforce will want, (and need) clear guidance and visibility of next steps. They will also want to feel that they can trust their leadership team to make the right decisions at the right time – for their wellbeing as well as the profitability of the organization.
Negotiators usually use the following five-step process in a hostage or crisis situation. However, each phase can be applied (and indeed is relevant) to the process of communicating with your workforce during periods of crisis or change. Following the five steps helps to build a connection based on trust, ensuring your teams can unite with a clear sense of purpose:
- Preparation for contact: make a thorough assessment of the situation – analyze previous events, the environment, cultural nuances that may have an impact, any other preconceptions and your workforce itself
- Initial Contact: first impressions count. Demonstrate that you are listening to the advice from the government and other relevant organizations, making informed and well-thought-out decisions
- Building Trust: This is critical. Your workforce will want to know that the organization they work for can be trusted, and is considering their physical and mental health alongside other business-critical decisions
- Influence and persuasion: Demonstrate how you are taking a proactive, flexible approach to problem-solving, and lead by example
- Conclusion: An engaged workforce who are committed to returning to work, or shifting the way that they work once the lockdown measures are no longer in place
Clear and effective communication is at the heart of this process, and experience has taught me that the more effort you put into the early stages, the better the outcome. This may take time, but patience, perseverance and persistence will pay off.
A negotiator knows that someone under stress is only likely to recall 60% of the conversation, so it really does make sense to get that initial conversation right. Having clear and concise scripts prepared in advance may be helpful.
At the heart of all hostage and crisis negotiation is the intention to ‘save life’. Our response to the COVID-19 crisis also has the preservation of life at its center.
While re-engaging your workforce may not be a matter of life or death, it will undoubtedly make a difference in the longer term. By taking a non-judgemental, compassionate and empathetic approach, you will be able to connect with your workforce in a way which is not only authentic but sees tangible results too.
Just before lockdown began, I visited the Middle East to teach negotiation skills to officials there. I learned that newly trained negotiators were going to support their public health response team in tracing and liaising with suspected COVID-19 patients. They recognize just how important it is to have qualified and prepared individuals ready to speak to people during a crisis. When, as in this case, the very nature of the crisis means that more people than ever are living in isolation – being able to build a connection and do so almost instantaneously, really is vital.