The normal perceived communication model in management is top-down. We listen to those above us, summarize, then broadcast to the people on our team. Occasionally, top management has a question, we pass that question to our people, get an answer, then pass it back up the chain. Overall, the flow is 90% down, 10% up.
Until a crisis.
During a crisis (disaster, end of financial year, quarter-close, sudden drop in sales, contract termination threat, etc) the model flips around. Instead of a conduit down, managers must become an efficient conduit UP.
Senior people both inside your management chain, and in other organizations, need a single source of truth for what is going on in your organization. They expect that you will quickly pull information from your teams, condense it, validate accuracy, then communicate it in a tight, coherent form devoid of emotion or unnecessary editorial comment.
In the military, we called the ability to do this "Military Bearing" - and you can see it in pilots, surgeons and other people who truly do life and death jobs.
Now, in contracts, nobody is going to die. That said, our work can mean life and death for organizations and careers. So, there are things we can borrow from this model that will improve your ability to handle a sudden reversal in the flow of communication.
(1) Plan. Not all shifts in the communication model are sudden. Some happen every month, quarter, or year. Plan in advance how information will flow, document a process for updating status, build in confidence tests to ensure the information flowing is correct. The more you can do in advance, the less you will have to think about when things get hot. Communicating about communication during a crisis is difficult, because people may not be listening while under stress!
(2) Breathe. Too many people start to rush, particularly when time gets short. Pause that extra second to allow your speech to sound measured, unruffled. For negotiators, imagine the other side just revealed a surprise point, treat this the same way. Pause, think, breathe, then react. Also, sounding unruffled increases other people's confidence - and that is
(3) Know which sources to trust, and how far. Rumor during a crisis continually finds its way into the stream. Know the definitive source of the information you need, and only trust that source.
(4) Go visual. Many people make the mistake of staying with verbal communications. A status board that is constantly updated and trustworthy is worth its weight in gold. People don't have to wait to get their answer, they know what they need, and might be able to get it without interrupting your team.
(5) Understand the executive's next step. If you are being asked for data that the executive needs to put into a spreadsheet, don't send her your input in a Powerpoint file! Send it in the spreadsheet so she can point, click, communicate. The more she has to do with your input, the less value you are adding to the communication stream.
(6) Contingency-planning is crucial. What if the networks are down, phones out, building locked, or critical people drop out of the loop? In simulations, I always identify the key actors during the first 30 minutes, then take them out of the loop.
(7) Practice. If it is something really important, it is worth the time & money to walk through it when the pressure is off.
(8) Trust is key. If you are the kind of manager who does not build strong direct reports, or punishes people who speak up in a way you don't like, then you are doomed when the communications flow reverses. People will only tell you good news, shade the bad, or do anything to avoid you when you need them the most.
(9) Be ready for the flow to flip back. Executive priorities change, they have more critical problems come up, or the crisis passes. You and your teams need to be ready for you to stop being a switchboard, and go back to leading.
(10) Get to the point. This is no time for elaborate detail, "I told you so" or snide remarks about what caused the situation. The critical thing is to get through the storm, you can argue about who forgot the umbrella on the other side...