Tell the Truth to Get Through Unhappy Times
Bad things happen even in the best organizations. What do you do when things go wrong? Too many leaders insist on "keeping mum" as the official management policy. When clients ask my opinion on how to best handle unhappy news, here's what I share:
On one hand, I've gotten myself in trouble for sometimes sharing information with my team that "supposed" to be secret. On the other hand, I've generally had great trusting relationships with my teams, whether a 12-person financial unit or a 100-member service team. So it's a balancing game: support secrecy to avoid anxiety, or improve loyalty and retention of team members. One reason employees are more apt to stay is honest communication by leadership.
I have learned that in the absence of news, people will make up their own stories - and the rumors are almost always uglier than the reality! People prefer to hear difficult news directly from their manager. When you can be counted on to share bad news as well as good news, people trust you more and won't assume you have hidden agendas. Forthright communication in your leadership capacity is the ideal approach.
Plus, remember that you're dealing with adults who are neither stupid nor blind. Pretending nothing is happening is simply not a smart option.
Bruce Hennes is a Crisis Communications expert. His coaching around bad news is to NEVER, EVER keep it secret. His top three rules are:
1. Tell the Truth (they are going to discover it anyway!)
2. Be the First (let them hear it from you, not from others)
3. Tell it all (share what is known)*
*About #3: don't wait till you have all the facts. Tell what you do know - and what you don't know. If you're sharing opinion or conjecture, make it clear that it's just your best guess. Then, if reality pans out differently, people will still trust you.
Bruce says that the more YOU talk about an issue, the faster it goes away. Meanwhile, if the rumor mill (or the media) has it, they will make up anything that's missing -- and remember, the story they create is worse than the Truth!
I recently coached a client organization through a 20% workforce reduction where - because they had to first wait for volunteers - the entire process would take a month to fully develop. I urged them to share everything that was firmly decided as it was decided (rather than waiting till the last minute), and everyone - those laid off and those who survived - felt much better about the process. Sad? Yes. Betrayed? No. Showing your hand equates with effective communication in leadership.
Staying in constant communication also gave the leadership team the opportunity to continually speak of the brighter future post-restructuring. This helped the entire organization focus on the future upside even as they endured the changes.
So tell the truth. Honest communication in leadership is key. It will always be easier to recover from a setback than from a loss of trust in leadership.