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Talking About a Difficult Decision — When You Can’t Share All the Details

By David Lancefield for Harvard Business Review

Picture this scenario: You’re planning to make some organizational changes that will result in layoffs. Perhaps market conditions are difficult, or you’re integrating a company you acquired. You haven’t figured out all the details about numbers, timing, and terms, so it’s too early to share the full picture — but rumors are circulating.

What are your options? Saying nothing can undermine people’s trust in your motives and compassion. It also puts you at a disadvantage when you face a flurry of questions because people pick up signals earlier than many leadership teams realize. On the flip side, saying too much can leave people feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable as they struggle to process the information and implications.

Striking the right balance between these two extremes is a tricky exercise for leaders. It requires giving people a sense of the considerations involved in making the decision, confidence in the process, and a feeling that you’re caring for them the best you can. Every situation will have unique characteristics, but these five strategies should help you figure out what to say and do when you can’t be fully transparent.

Consider Full Transparency

First, start by assuming that you’ll share all of the available information with everyone. This so-called “radical transparency” may feel unrealistic, but it’s a good way to test whether withholding information will serve you and the organization well.

With colleagues in your executive leadership team, describe the decision you’re making in as much detail as possible. For example, you might say: “We need to lay off [X] people in this division by [date] because customer demand is not strong enough to support this capacity and we’ve exhausted all other options to redeploy these people.” Doing this often reveals gaps in your logic and information you need to collect to make the statement as clear as possible.

Next, identify what you would retract from your statement before sharing it with employees and set out the reasons why. Consider these questions:

  • What would be the immediate effect of sharing this information? What do you know, believe, or assume about these effects?
  • What might the downstream consequences be?
  • What is the worst that could happen?

For example, you may want to omit the exact number of people and the dates involved because you haven’t made final decisions, or you’re awaiting more up-to-date information about the future pipeline of customer orders.

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