Leadership in difficult times requires great communication – not the art of corporate presentation

Open your LinkedIn feed. You won’t have to scroll long before you come across someone posting about their recent layoff. If you’ve ever been in this position, you know how it’s scary to read such a post.

Even if your current company hasn’t laid off anyone.

That’s the thing about fear.

That’s a fire that spreads fast enough on its own, but the words “fire” and 10,000 additional shares make it spread even faster. It is a fire that consumes rationality. This is a fire that will burn right through the comforting statements of government economists.

Economic anxiety — also known as “Oh shit, how am I going to pay my rent syndrome” — is in the air.

If you’re a CEO or founder, now is the time to sharpen your internal communication.

You can start by becoming a better leader.

Increase your reach.

A leader who separates himself from his people is no leader at all. A leader behind a locked door (whether real or metaphorical) also gives the impression that they are working on something they don’t want their team to see.

As a power down message.

Troubled times call for visibility. Even if you don’t know what to say, now is the time to be seen.

People look for confidence in leaders – now is the time to deliver.

In case you haven’t heard, we are in uncertain times – and in uncertain times, people look to their leaders to provide security.

Security does not require you to have all (or even any) of the answers. Instead, security means knowing the strength and character of yourself and the people you surround yourself with. Being confident means you are confident in their ability to overcome their biggest challenges. Being confident doesn’t mean saying, “I know we can get through this.” It means saying, “I know that you and I will be fine in the long run, no matter what happens tomorrow.

That means following that statement with real action.

(You can start by doing everything you can to help them find a new job. Don’t post a selfie of yourself crying on LinkedIn. See the next section for more on the futility of performative empathy.)

As a leader, you cannot control the level of uncertainty your employees feel about the market, your industry, or the general direction of society. But you can make them feel confident about you.

Remember: Performative empathy is the opposite of true leadership.

True empathy is a great thing. However, we have fetishized empathy. We demand emotional performance, even in scenarios where true empathy could not exist. We expect leaders to show their empathy even when they cannot know what it feels like to face the horror of an uncertain economic future.

Here’s the thing: More than 60 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. An unexpected medical bill can bankrupt a family that has followed the rules all their lives.

If you’re a CEO and have ever been able to contemplate even a theoretical financial future measured in the millions — or more — then you don’t know what it feels like to be staring down the barrel of a mortgage or rent bill coming due with no idea how you’re going to pay it.

So don’t pretend you are.

Individual CEOs and corporate leaders cannot prevent downturns. Recessions, or even slowdowns, are complex events with causes that can remain mysteries for decades. Employees understand that times are tough and their CEOs and senior leaders did not cause the turmoil affecting the economy.

They also understand that there are huge differences between your average employee who loses his job and a CEO who is inevitably already writing his own comeback story.

If you’re on the still-busy side of the desk (or Zoom meeting, or worse, mass email), then don’t pretend you’re in the same boat. You’re not.

This is not true empathy.

This is just BS corporate art.

It’s like being lowered into the Atlantic in a lifeboat while yelling back at the people on the deck of the Titanic yelling, “We’re all in this together!”

Troubled times call for better leadership. And better communication.

The two are usually the same.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own and not those of Inc.com.

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