Honesty is the Only Policy for Great Leaders

Early in my corporate communications career, when I was still learning what the job was really all about, I did something that probably seemed brash and in retrospect looks brilliant. I only wish I could say it was an original idea, but I was simply drawing from the best practices I read about in professional journals.

I suggested that the leaders of our business should communicate honestly.

No spin. No selective communication. Just tell employees the truth, even when it hurts.

They didn’t always take that advice, but most of the times they did. As a result, I believe employees grew to trust senior management more than they used to.

When a layoff loomed, business leaders explained why it was necessary and how it would work. When major changes were coming to manufacturing operations, leaders met with employees in face-to-face meetings to explain them. When business declined, senior management talked about the reasons why and the plan for turning it around. Employees asked tough questions. Leaders responded to them.

This seems like common sense, but even in today’s hyperconnected business environment, many leaders choose to mislead employees rather than to be honest with them. (Daily Voice, anyone?)

Still, many business leaders get it. Last month, Groupon founder and CEO Andrew Mason wrote a refreshingly honest memo to employees about why he was leaving the company. “I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family,” he wrote, using one of the most common cliches in business communication. He quickly added, “Just kidding – I was fired today.”

Mason went on to give the reasons for his firing. “As CEO, I am accountable,” he wrote. Then he set up his successor for success: “This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, leadership John Kotter tells of another CEO who departed with honest words. It wasn’t because of anything wrong Jack Ma had done as the leader of Chinese web company Alibaba, however. In this case, Ma was a popular and successful leader who knew employees would have a difficult time adjusting to a new CEO. Acknowledging this was not an act of inflated ego, Kotter says, but rather an honest assessment of the situation.

“We want the truth from our leaders,” Kotter writes. “But we have become cynics, accustomed to twisted messages from politicians and company marketing communications so wordsmithed that they lack meaning. These things do not inspire us, or pull us toward someone in a leadership position, with an attitude of wanting to help. They do the opposite. Great leaders have the ability to surprise and reassure people with their direct and honest communication. This is an essential part of what makes them great. And it is especially important in times of big change and uncertainty — such as CEO transitions — where it can smooth the way for the incoming leader.”

In good times and bad, honesty is the way to go. Great business leaders know this.

 

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Daily Voice Layoffs: The Lowest of the Low

Every time I think I’ve seen the worst example of employee communication, another one comes along that lowers the bar to new depths.

Daily Voice is the new lowest of the low.

I read this incredible story on Ragan.com, which picked it up from the gossip website Gawker. Daily Voice, a network of micro news sites in the Northeast U.S., is going through some tough times like a lot of companies these days. But unlike most companies, Daily Voice chose to first tease employees with a Friday afternoon promise of “good news” about the company’s future, then engage in a Monday bloodbath of closures and layoffs.

Make no mistake: Daily Voice management flat-out lied to employees. “Monday morning we will share with you the news about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” wrote Chairman Carll Tucker. “The news is good—but you’ll need to sit tight while we finalize our plans. I am pumped about the prospect of working with you to build a great company.”

Management then scheduled individual meetings with employees that were in fact termination notices. Adding insult to injury, the company gave no severance packages.

I’m guessing this mess will stand for many years as the best example of how not to communicate and carry out a layoff. Critiquing it is like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel.

So, how should a company share such bad news? I’ve written about layoff communications before, but let me give some tips germane to this example.

First, tell the truth. And don’t lie. These are two separate but equally important points. Hopefully, talk of a forthcoming layoff is not going to be a shocker to your employees because your leaders have regularly communicated how the company is doing and what is at stake. If a layoff is inevitable, explain the business reasons for it and be up front about the process. (This all requires planning, and a communication professional should be part of the layoff planning process.)

Never mislead employees. Never try to gloss over a terrible situation — and layoffs are terrible. There is no getting around it. But business leaders and communicators must be forthcoming and transparent, open and honest.

The best way to communicate that a layoff is coming is face to face. That’s not always possible, depending on how an organization is structured, but it is an option that should be discussed and considered before resorting to other communication methods. In a face-to-face setting, business leaders have a better opportunity to demonstrate sincerity and empathy (through tone of voice and body language) and employees have a chance to ask questions.

Employees should hear about their specific fates in one-on-one meetings with their managers. Without question, this is one of the most difficult things a manager ever has to do, but it is part of the job. Communicators can help prepare managers for these conversations by providing information, resources and even coaching.

Remember the survivors of a layoff. They are the often-forgotten victims of downsizing. A layoff is likely to leave them in sorrow over the loss of co-workers and their confidence in the company’s viability is likely to be shaken. While business leaders should eventually turn employees’ attention forward, there must be a period of time for grieving — yes, grieving. Don’t try to communicate optimism for the future and a forward-focus too soon after a layoff or the surviving employees may not get on board. Can you imagine anyone at Daily Voice today being as pumped up about the future as Chairman Carll Tucker? Not likely.

It’s amazing that in 2013 we hear stories as stupid as what has happened at Daily Voice. With a still-struggling economy and an increasingly competitive marketplace, however, there will be plenty of opportunities for other companies to get it wrong — or to do it right.