The COVID-19 quarantine has stirred the economy into turmoil. Business review juggernaut Yelp suggests that over 80,000 businesses around the country have permanently shut down from March 1 through July 25, with thousands more struggling in the economic downturn.
If you’re in leadership, you’re keenly aware how significantly your business operations have certainly changed since a year ago. You are likely feeling the effects of society’s trimmed-down spending and families’ cut budgets. But how much should you share with your team about the struggles your business is facing? Is there a value to total transparency or are there times when it can hurt more than it helps?
Here, we’ll explore both sides of the argument.
Why & How to Tell Your Employees About Challenges
Employees want to help address challenges.
Sharing challenges with your employees can be helpful for both parties. If employees are part of the problem, for instance, they’re often willing to alter behavior they may not have known was an issue.
If their performance isn’t part of the issue, then employees can share perspectives to address concerns that you may not have considered. Rather than feeling that you have to confine the problem to your leadership team’s closed boardroom, you can involve all of your employees in developing a creative way out of a problem.
Speculation can be worse than reality.
According to Leadership IQ’s report “The State of Leadership Development In 2020,” about a fifth of American workers feel that they’re rarely told anything about the viability of their companies. While there are certainly lots of reasons for this secrecy, employees’ perception is the same: they envision the worst possible reality. So, if you’re keeping challenges from your employees out an instinct to protect them, you’re actually making their anxiety about the future of their workplace even worse.
Be clear that you can’t predict the future.
You don’t have to have a plan to address every challenge when you first connect with your employees. On the contrary. If you communicate with your employees early and often, they can help you make plans to meet these challenges head-on. A focus on transparency to your employees doesn’t also require that you simultaneously offer a solution.
When Shouldn’t You Tell Employees About Challenges
You don’t fully understand the challenges you’re facing yourself.
One reason not to tell your employees about challenges is if you don’t fully understand them yourself. That means that you shouldn’t explode with frustration or nervousness the first time a challenge falls onto your lap.
Instead, you should work to understand the stakeholders, timeline, and angles involved in an issue before explaining a problem to your employees. They will almost certainly have questions for you, and you want to make sure you can address their concerns to the best of your abilities.
You don’t have plans in place for consistent communication.
Avoid dropping a bombshell if you haven’t created plans for opening lines of communication with your employees. Telling employees something before you have a plan for soliciting their feedback and follow-up can be worse than telling them nothing at all.
Specifically, plan small group and one-on-one feedback sessions where you can address concerns and ask for feedback. Further, create a virtual repository where employees can pose their questions and receive answers from you. If employees feel like you’ve initiated a feedback loop, they’ll feel more confident that you’re handling challenges.
If you can’t stop yourself from sugarcoating the situation.
Most of us feel empathy for our employees. We don’t want to tell them anything that will make them angry or sad. Telling the truth about problems your company faces is anything but easy.
If you’ve just discovered a problem, you may not be ready to authentically explain it to your employees. Or, you may have the impulse to sugarcoat because you feel you’re helping them by making the situation seem better than it is. Wait until you can be honest enough to explain the situation without adding any overly-positive spin.
Harvard Business Review explains the problem: “If, for instance, management has decided to cut pay, but hasn’t landed on a precise number, don’t pretend it’s not happening even if you can’t give specifics. Besides, all of the facts of the situation will become apparent over time and softening hard truths can backfire.”
When considering how much and how often to communicate with your team, Paul Argenti, Professor of Corporate Communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, offers straightforward advice. “Look at the situation from their shoes and think about what you yourself would want to hear,” he says.
Employees respond to leaders who are honest about difficult situations. Most employees don’t believe that bosses who hoard information are protecting them; rather, they see their employers as dishonest and untrustworthy.
What’s more, if you’re upfront with your employees about the challenges you are facing, you can seek their insight into solutions that you may never have considered. While your employees will look to you for guidance and regular communication, think of your staff members as your team, rather than as subordinates who can’t handle the truth.
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