Crisis management: Should a leader put their emotions on display when communicating during a crisis?

Associate Professor Daniel Laufer explores the risks and benefits of leaders expressing emotions when communicating during a crisis.

Last year the former Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson, who died earlier this year, spoke about the challenges the hotel chain faced as a result of Covid-19. The company posted a six-minute YouTube video of the speech to Marriott employees, shareholders, and customers. During the speech, Sorensen became visibly emotional when describing the impact of the pandemic on Marriott employees. Towards the end of the speech he choked back tears when he said: “I can tell you that I have never had a more difficult moment than this one. There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates–people who are the very heart of this company–that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.”

Sorensen was widely praised for his performance in the video. In addition, the YouTube video quickly went viral, with thousands of people viewing it. The speech raises important questions for many leaders when managing a crisis. Should they express emotions when communicating during a crisis? When can expressing emotions help an organisation during a crisis? Is there also a risk to expressing emotions when a leader is a spokesperson during a crisis?

Two emotions that are typically felt by leaders during a crisis are anger and sadness. Anger can be generated when another organisation or person is responsible for a crisis. A good example of experiencing this emotion is Jacinda Ardern expressing anger over rule-breakers who were responsible for a recent cluster of Covid-19 cases in Auckland.

Sadness is another emotion felt by leaders during a crisis. This occurs as a result of the reaction of leaders to the suffering of victims. Victims of a crisis can be adversely impacted for a number of reasons, including physical injury and financial harm. Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott, experienced sadness because his employees were hurt financially by Covid-19 through no fault of their own. Jacinda Ardern, on the other hand, experienced sadness after the volcano eruption at White Island because people were killed and injured as a result of this natural disaster.

When a leader is communicating as a spokesperson during a crisis, it is very important that his or her words are consistent with the body language. It is not enough for the words to express the emotions on their own. When people are watching the spokesperson, they are asking themselves whether they can trust what the spokesperson is saying. For example, is the leader truly angry at the person or organisation responsible for the crisis? Is he or she expressing sincere empathy towards the victims of the crisis?

When the spokesperson’s words match his or her body language, the message is viewed as more credible by the public. This occurs because people are more likely to believe that the leader is communicating his or her true feelings about the crisis.

An example of a CEO who did not demonstrate consistency between words and emotions while communicating during a crisis is Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines. In 2017 the company was facing a major crisis as a result of the forceful removal of a passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight. Disturbing images from the removal of the passenger went viral when other passengers on the plane shared videos of the incident on social media. In the CEO’s first broadcast interview on a major television network in the USA, the CEO did not show any emotions when talking about his shame and embarrassment for the forceful removal of the passenger from the plane. The CEO spoke in a monotone, and his body language stayed the same throughout most of the interview. He also paused for a couple of seconds before responding to the interviewer’s question about whether the passenger bears any responsibility for what had happened. The CEO eventually said that the passenger wasn’t at fault, but the CEO’s performance during the interview caused some in the public to question whether the CEO truly felt sincere embarrassment and shame for what had happened.

Expressing emotions during a crisis can enhance the credibility of a spokesperson and help an organisation manage a crisis. However, a leader losing composure during a crisis can also hurt an organisation. When a leader expresses sadness and anger, there is a difference between tearing up and sobbing, as well as raising one’s voice vs. screaming. Losing one’s composure can raise serious questions among the public about whether a leader can successfully manage a crisis. Striking the right balance in expressing one’s emotions during a crisis can be a challenge due to the enormous amount of pressure a leader is under. However, in the case of the former Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson, he found the right balance in his response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Dr Daniel Laufer is an Associate Professor of Marketing in the Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Read the original article on Stuff.