At times, leaders must choose between candor and discretion. Top executives, for example, need to know when to be open about sensitive information, when to hold back and how to handle these delicate conversations.
Consider the situation in which leadership is considering a reorganization that includes layoffs, but has not yet communicated this to all employees. You can expect employees to hear rumors. Some will start to ask when the changes will happen — and whether or not they are affected. While executive leadership and the board may not be directly affected, they need to deliver a specific message in order to keep the reorganization on track and minimize the negative impact on the overall culture of the organization. Your handling of these types of information needs requires that you balance candor and discretion to maintain trust.
Here are strategies for deciding when to share openly or be more discreet and how to handle the conversations.
Finding the balance
Open communication is the basis of productive, trusting relationships. Without candor, people are left to guess at meanings and come up with their own stories about reality, whether it be bad news (layoffs, financial misses) or good news (exit strategy, new customer). But sometimes saying too much is worse than staying quiet.
Our realities are built on our perceptions, and perceptions are not necessarily the same as facts. You can use this human tendency to your advantage by sharing basic information and then building the perception of a solid direction based on those core facts. Thus, you can share the truth, lead with confidence and inspire employees even when you can’t tell all.
To avoid negative perceptions, continue to be transparent which will build trust. If you can’t tell everyone everything, focus on the specific concerns and address them in specific ways. Avoid generalities that might give away more information than you intend. And if you can’t answer a question because it might reveal too much, be candid about it. Remind all stakeholders that the situation is still evolving, reassuring them that they will know as soon as there is anything concrete to tell.
Managing the conversation
You’ll want a strategy for addressing interests and issues of stakeholders at different levels — for example, board, managers and employees. You may have specific communication needs for some stakeholders compared to others. You want to answer sensitive questions candidly, while hitting the right level of detail for each group.
Starting at the top, maintain high trust and transparency with the board of directors. As fiduciaries, their job is to safeguard the company’s well-being and they have a need-to-know most information. They also have vital perspectives to share in return. If possible, consider having board meetings more often at strategically critical phases, such as leading up to fundraising rounds, going into the pre-exit stage or pivoting the business.
Senior managers may already know many details — some may even know all the details — often they are helping to gather relevant information. Here, consider what they need to know to do their work and lead their teams effectively. Concentrate on need-to-know information to help managers stay focused on their responsibilities. In the example of a leadership change, reassure uninvolved managers that they can push forward and give general information about the cause and benefits of the change when it makes sense. Share basic work-experience information about the new leader(s) after any legal hurdles have been cleared and contracts are signed.
Employees have a narrower set of information needs — typically focused to their specific roles — but like other levels, they still deserve all the information you can give them about matters that affect them. In the case of layoffs, for example, you can maintain trust by providing simple, clear information about the underlying causes. You might schedule a company-wide meeting to discuss possible scenarios, maintaining transparency but using a lower level of detail. This can be especially important to counter what employees will hear “on the street” sooner or later. Remember that authenticity is critical as employees can generally read between the lines.
In individual situations, give highly specific responses whenever possible. For example, in the case of an employee’s exit package, focus on the value of their specific package rather than how it compares to others.
Leaders often find themselves in situations that require a careful balance between candor and discretion. Use open communication to remain transparent without sharing sensitive information. To find the balance and maintain engagement, segment messages by audience, hold open-forum employee meetings, keep the board involved and build trust by being candid without necessarily disclosing everything to everyone. By effectively balancing candor and discretion, you’ll be able to maintain trust and navigate the tough situations at the same time.
For more ideas on how you can help your company reach its goals, read How to Use Radical Candor to Communicate Effectively.