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How much should you be sharing with your team? What if you have nothing to say?

Many of us struggle to know how to operate in these uncertain times, much less how to communicate both authentically and accurately. With so many unknowns, yet so many depending upon leaders for hope and clear direction, an unavoidable conflict emerges – balancing accurate messaging (which takes time to determine, often after a critical inflection point has passed) with candid, real-time information.

A large body of research suggests that leaders who are both transparent and authentic garner greater followership and trust. Openness and intellectual honesty engender loyalty and provide a sense of security, even when the news is bad. Consider the positive effects on the markets several weeks ago when the federal government first embraced the difficult realities of COVID-19 and set out to take broader protective measures. There was almost a collective sigh of relief breathed across the country as if to say, “OK, they/we get it.”

On the other end of the continuum, there is such a thing as too much transparency. Over-sharing or even catastrophizing creates fear and panic. It is undoubtedly difficult to strike the right balance. From our research and collective wisdom, we humbly offer a few thoughts as you courageously lead in these uncertain times:

  • Take your temperature; are you naturally an under- or over-sharer? To know thyself is the starting place. Ask, “As a leader, do I tend to wait until I have all of the right answers and data before I communicate?” or “Do I prefer to keep it real and in the moment?” In these times, a slight tilt toward the latter will serve you well, even if it is outside your comfort zone.
  • Transparently speak about what you know to be true right now, even as it relates to your own feelings. We get into trouble when we try to look too far into the future. Open dialogue about current realities and their effect on the business, and even us personally, engender trust and commitment to the cause. Don’t underestimate the power of human connection brought about by openness.
  • Focus on what you can control and humbly acknowledge that which you cannot. Whether it be actions taken to protect employees and the business, or even extraordinarily difficult decisions that personally affect people’s employment, speaking honestly about those things we can control moves us from inertia to positive momentum.

Related, speaking to critical decisions against the backdrop of the enduring realities of the organization’s mission and vision creates a needed anchor. Acknowledging that which we have no control over (e.g., Will the curve flatten? When will we return to “normal”?) leaves us less vulnerable to overreach or having to walk messages back.

  • Share bad news early. Amy Edmondson in a recent HBR article captures it well: “If sunshine is the best disinfectant, the opposite is also true: Dark, hidden corners are great places to grow something truly horrible. Few problems improve with age.” While reflexes may tempt us to hide the bad, the sooner we embrace the difficult realities, the faster we are able to move beyond them.

Leaders with a history of transparent communication are more likely to have built a bank account of goodwill from which to draw in these times. Continue to make these deposits. If, however, this has not been your modus operandi, it is not too late. Transparently leading from the front can start today.