by: Amy Gallo
Being the boss means you are often privy to information that your team isn’t. You may learn that a major client is unhappy with your service, or that senior leaders are considering outsourcing your team’s work. At these moments, it’s easy to feel stuck between your bosses and the people you manage. Do you share the information? Or do you protect your employees from it? Whatever the news, it’s up to you to decide whether, when, and how to tell your team.
What the Experts Say
There are of course times when you are not allowed to share the news — your company has been acquired but the deal is not finished, or someone on your team is being let go. But there are a whole host of instances when it is up to you. At those times, you’re likely to feel pressure from one side or another. “It’s very rare people don’t want to know the news even if it’s bad,” says Michael Useem, the William and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management at the Wharton School and author of “Four Lessons in Adaptive Leadership.” But it’s important to assess each situation individually and to remember it’s not your job to coddle employees. “We’re not their parents, we’re their bosses,” says Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Telling or not depends on the situation, but these guidelines can help you make the decision.
Know your natural tendency
When it comes to privacy, we all have a preferred approach in our personal lives. Some tend to keep things quiet, while others are more of an open book. In your role as a manager, though, neither end of the spectrum is ideal. “If you’re too private and people aren’t getting the information they need to do their jobs, you need to get over it,” says Hill. But if you’re being too transparent — divulging too much information — it can come off as unprofessional. If you understand your biases, you’ll be better able to counteract them and find a middle ground.
Question your motives
If you find yourself chomping at the bit to share news with your group or, on the flip side, resisting a conversation you think you should have, question your motives. Are you feeling guilty about harboring information? Are you afraid of people getting mad at you? “Understand your reasons for telling or not and ask yourself if they are legitimate,” says Hill. Definitely don’t share news if you are simply doing it to make yourself feel better. You shouldn’t pass your anxiety on to your employees. At the same time, don’t keep quiet just because you’re uncomfortable or can’t figure out how to deliver the news.
You should also question whether or not your motives are manipulative. Don’t hold back information to gain or prevent a certain outcome from your people. For example, Hill says she takes issue with companies that know they have to lay people off but don’t tell in the hopes that employees will work hard until the bitter end. Secrecy in this case is deceitful.
Tend toward transparency
Both Hill and Useem argue that managers should typically be as transparent as possible, especially when it comes to negative messages. “You need to give them bad news if it’s going to impact their work or career in ways that are material,” says Hill. Telling also allows you to enlist your team’s help in solving the problem. Openness builds your credibility, which Useem describes as “cash in your account.” Employees will trust that you’re going to tell them what they need to know. Then, if at some point, you can’t tell them everything, they are much more likely to understand.
Frame it about the future
If you decide to share, make sure your delivery includes a degree of hopefulness. “Frame the news so they can absorb it and do something about it,” says Hill. Useem concurs and says that leaders have a responsibility to show people what the path forward is. For example, if you need to tell your team that you lost an important project bid, you can say something like, “While this is definitely bad news, we are going to double our client development efforts and work towards securing three smaller projects by the end of the year. You can help by reaching out to your network and reporting any leads back to me.” Useem says that no matter how bad the news you need to convey optimism. Of course you don’t want to give anyone false hope. “Overstating the likelihood of success can lead to disappointment later on,” says Useem.
But don’t over share
Also realize that total transparency may be unnecessary and overwhelming to your employees. Resist the temptation to share news when you don’t have complete information and to delve into details when it will cause more harm than good. “People have a hard time coping with probabilities on the down side,” says Useem. Instead of hearing there is a small chance of the negative outcome, they are likely to panic and assume it’s a done deal. Hill agrees: “You don’t need to share your entire thought process with people.”
When to keep your mouth shut
There are also times when you are not at liberty to disclose information because of corporate policy, or a directive from your boss. In these cases, if you feel your employees should know the news, challenge the rule or decision by talking to upper management and making the case for telling. But without permission from above, don’t go against policy. You could put your job at risk.
Principles to Remember
- Ask yourself why you want to tell or not and assess whether it’s a legitimate reason
- Lean toward being transparent if possible
- Frame the news so that people know what they can do about it
- Hold back information because you aren’t sure how to deliver it
- Flout company policy if you want to share something you’ve been asked not to
- Give your team every detail about a decision — tell them just what they need to know
Case study #1: Give the necessary information
Rocky Pecoraro, the principal of Pecoraro Recruiters International, had some pretty bad news to share. Several months earlier, Rocky had placed Gerald* in the position of director of food and beverage at a resort hotel. Gerald’s supervisor was disappointed with the new director’s performance and wanted to terminate him. Rocky promised that he would talk to Gerald to see if his performance might be turned around. Rocky did just that, but refrained from telling Gerald that he would be fired if his behavior didn’t change. “I had a previous experience on a different position where the individual walked off the job fearing he was to be fired anyway,” Rocky explains. So I didn’t feel that I had to tell [Gerald] every detail and have it hanging over his every move. It would have been too much pressure,” Rocky says. Instead, he told Gerald to work harder at adapting to the hotel’s culture and meeting expectations. Gerald listened to the feedback, and after venting frustrations of his own, worked with Rocky to do a better job. In the end, Rocky’s supervisor was pleased with the changes he saw and agreed to keep Gerald on board. “Ultimately I believe most of us want to know the truth and not have to discover it on our own,” Rocky says. But if I had told [Gerald] the whole truth about what [his] supervisor said exactly as it was, it would have been detrimental to their future relationship.”
*Not his real name
Case study #2: Enlist them in coming up with a solution
Suchitra Mishra had been leading a close-knit central account operations team at an IT company in India for three years when she found out the group was to be disbanded. She knew the decision, which was to be carried out in four months’ time, would negatively impact everyone as they were reassigned and given new responsibilities. “We would have to learn new skills and new style of working” with new peers and bosses, she says. “This is not easy to do at any stage of a career and I expected stiff resistance and negativity. As a leader, my first instinct was always to ‘protect’ the team, to not let anything demotivate them.” But she realized this would benefit her more than it would them. Instead, she decided to share the news immediately in a sit-down meeting to help ease the transition and give the team time to “accept the inevitable.” “The reaction was a mixed bag of emotions — anger at management for changing something that was working, fear about their jobs, and unhappiness about having to make a fresh start,” she says. But she also encouraged the group to focus them on the future “Letting them know as soon as I knew gave us time to strategize and work on a plan to ensure smooth transition for both us and the departments everyone eventually moved to,” she says. Her superiors were also happy because she managed the change without a drop in productivity. ‘You have to trust your teams enough to process all information — good or bad — for them to feel valued and empowered to deal with all situations,” she says.
Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter at @amyegallo.