Here’s a classic leadership scenario: You’re a boss and you’ve been told about big changes that are going to happen in your organization. Some people are going to be reassigned, others are going to lose their jobs or be offered lesser positions. Here’s the kicker: You can’t say anything about it. The information is confidential.
But you’re the kind of boss who has built a lot of street cred for being transparent. And it’s going to come out that you knew about the changes beforehand.
The best managers don’t build loyalty and trust by secretly sharing confidential company information or telling employees bad news that isn’t their business; instead they do it by sharing what needs to be shared, maintaining confidentiality, and being truthful in how and what they communicate. (Remember that saying “I can’t talk about that” or “I am not at liberty to discuss that” isn’t a personal rejection, it’s an honest, professional statement of truth.)
Give your employees the credit to understand. For example, you—and they—know it’d be wrong to say something negative about one employee to another, and expect him to keep secrets from his teammates. Following the same logic, being open about “almost” everything also doesn’t include breaking the trust you have established with your boss by sharing something she’s told you to keep quiet about.
Yet, I know that’s easier said than done. So, here’s how to support your team without sharing something inappropriate:
1. When You Disagree With a Practice Inside the Organization
Show your integrity by telling the truth about your disagreement—especially to your boss—but still abiding by the policy. Here’s a real-life example: Kim-Ly was a shift supervisor at a clinic that instituted a policy preventing the use of mobile phones for nurses when they were working a shift. The nurses (men and women who had infants and school-aged children) needed to be accessible to their kids’ schools and childcare during work hours. Others had family or personal situations that occasionally cropped up that were important to handle during work hours.
Kim-Ly disagreed with the policy and shared with her employees that she was working hard to get management to change it. But until they did, she expected her team to stick to it. Supporting the policy while disagreeing with it eventually led to a new solution; a common “24/7” cell phone and mobile device that was managed and used collectively by everyone on the shift. The clinic’s management team liked the solution so much they implemented it as the standard throughout the organization, and Kim-Ly and her team were credited with the solution.
2. When Layoffs Are Coming and Your Team Has No Idea
You have strong relationships with you team, and so you know Dan is looking to buy a house and Tina’s daughter will be starting college soon. You’re wracked with guilt because you know that by the end of the year, one of them will need to find a new job.
More than a few bosses resort to secretly warning employees like Dan and Tina to not make any big financial decisions for a few weeks. Even though it’s done with the best of intentions, this sort of disclosure is breaking confidentiality and is likely to backfire. For most people, it’s just too hard to sit on a secret about job security. But as hard as it is, do your best to maintain confidentiality.
Your only hope for preventing this sort of unpleasant surprise is to always keep employees up-to-to date on the overall performance of the organization and remind them that everyone’s job is tied to that performance. For example, make reviewing the business results of your team or group a regular part of meetings. Doing so lowers the risk of people being caught by surprise, whatever the situation.
Once the news is out in the open, be ready to listen to them talk about their fears and concerns. Do your best to put yourself in their shoes and show empathy, then be ready to offer support if they ask for it—from writing reference letters to helping them think through finding a job that fits their talents in the future.
3. When There Will Be a Big Change (That Doesn’t Directly Affect Them)
No one has to fear for his or her jobs, but the landscape is changing. Maybe the CEO is leaving; there will be a merger; another office is shutting down; or some interpersonal scandal is about to come out. This can still make people feel unsettled and nervous.
After the news comes out, if someone asks you “Did you know about this?” Tell the truth. Respond with something like “Yes, it felt awkward to not tell you about it, but it wasn’t my place to share the information.” Situations like this can become teachable moments for your employees about what professionalism and maintaining confidentiality looks like.
Don’t wait for a crisis to tell your employees where your loyalties and responsibilities lie. Regular, open communication is what’s needed to maintain people’s trust and confidence.
Make sure your employees know your motivations. As their leader, you support their careers and advancement. But at the same time, as long as it’s legal and ethical, you are obliged to support your employer’s plans; its part of what they’re paying you to do. It can be a tough balance for sure, but being open—within reason—is the right place to start.