“Why didn’t you tell me, Ben?” - Luke Skywalker
If you’ve been in Luke’s place before and wondering why you weren’t told something big, you are probably a victim of a complicated situation. If you haven’t seen the original Star Wars trilogy (Eps IV - VI), I highly recommend you go and watch it. Also, spoiler alert: Obi-Wan, a.k.a. Ben, Kenobi kept the secret that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. Instead, opting to tell Luke that Vader had ‘destroyed’ Anakin Skywalker.
While technically true, the way Obi-Wan presented the information was very easy to misinterpret. I don’t know about you, but typically when I hear the word “destroyed” I think of something being killed or shattered – not replaced or changed into a different thing/person. This brings me to my point: Obi-Wan made some tough decisions about what to tell Luke and when.
As a leader this situation will come up much more frequently than you might like. The higher up the ranks you progress, the more frequently you will be privy to sensitive information the likes of which can (and will) ruin the day of people in the lower ranks; regardless of how well presented or thought through it is when they receive it. Here are a few items to keep in mind when you find yourself wondering “how am I ever going to tell them this?”
Impact – While the broad implications of the sensitive topic at hand may be obvious, spend some time thinking about as many ways it can affect the target audience as you can. Then write them down and think about ways to mitigate the adverse outcomes or at least soften the blow.
Delivery – Remember how Kenobi used the word “destroyed” instead of something more accurate? Your team will too. While circumstances may dictate that information be vague or left out until a more appropriate time, be considerate or the folk in your audience. Often the best way is the simplest and most straightforward. If you can’t tell them enough to minimize confusion/fear/anger/sorrow/etc., then perhaps not talking about it at all is the best short term solution.
Follow Up – People appreciate follow up when it is genuine and free from other agendas. After dropping a bomb like “half of the department is being let go” follow up with people in whatever ways make sense. Something as simple as an email check-in to let people know they can talk to you or another about their situation shows that you care about them and that they aren’t just expendable resources. Make the time to help your audience deal with the fallout in whatever ways you can.
Ultimately leaders need to rely on their intuition and judgement to decide what is right. One way to develop your intuition is by learning from other leaders or experts. You can find more material on how to be a phenomenal leader on the Protagonist Blog and reach out to our team here if you want some more tailored input.