The Delicate Balance Between Transparency and Confidentiality

  1. Introduction
  2. The Delicate Balance Between Grace and Accountability
  3. The Delicate Balance Between Transparency and Confidentiality
  4. The Delicate Balance Between Likeability and Friendship

As I stood in front of a roomful of my employees, all eyes and ears were alert.  The event was a planned communication about a major change going on in the company.  Everyone was restless and wondering what we all wonder in these situations:

“What will this mean for me?”

My script was carefully crafted by the communications experts.  It was meant to address all the questions of vision, costs, rationale, savings targets, but how employees would be impacted was left vague and non-specific.  At that particular point in the process, and for such a large audience, it was the right message. But when you’re standing in front of people you knowpeople who trust you for answers, whose families, fears, and vulnerabilities you know, and whose job relies on you—even a large audience can feel extremely personal. Add to that your desire to be transparent and honest, because you’ve always promised that to your employees, because that’s the reputation you’ve built, because that’s who you are.

What do you say in that moment that recognizes your values, yet maintains the company line?

I’ve had many a client say to me,

“But I have to tell them the truth!  I can’t betray my authentic self!”

While that is true, our role as leaders will put us in this situation more than once in our careers.  When the news is not good for everyone, or maybe worse, but it’s not the right time to disclose everything.  Maybe HR policies or procedures haven’t been finalized.  Maybe there are legal processes happening behind the scenes.  Maybe not all decisions are made.

One of the balances we face as leaders is whether to communicate something early or wait until all loose ends are resolved. Employees will sense something is coming.  They can read the signs which can damage morale.  But an incomplete story also leaves uncertainty and potentially creates confusion.

I’ve always felt it’s better from a leadership perspective to release a communication with a reasonable degree of substance rather than wait for rumors to spread unchecked.  Unfortunately, that leaves you to determine how to disclose details that either aren’t yet known or which aren’t approved for release. I found this most difficult when I knew there would be significant layoffs coming in a particular department, yet I couldn’t make the complete announcement.  It felt like a betrayal of my promise of transparency.

When balancing your need to be transparent with the company’s desire to keep certain information confidential, consider the following.

  • Tell employees everything you are authorized to reveal.
  1. Be supportive of the overall company strategic message, but acknowledge the uncertainty that remains.  Sometimes we just need to hear that our leaders know what we’re dealing with even if they can’t yet resolve everything.  It shows compassion, understanding and builds trust.
    • EXAMPLE: “I can’t go through details at this time and some information is still being finalized.  I know this is causing angst and concern and my commitment to you is that I’ll let you know the details as soon as I can.”
  2. Make yourself available for questions, which may include one on one or smaller group conversations of an informal nature.  Giving people an outlet to communicate can help diffuse the tension of the unknown.
  3. Don’t lie.  If you know and you can’t tell them, just say it. Don’t say, “I don’t know” if you do.
    • EXAMPLE: “I can’t give you all the details at this time.  But as soon as I can, I will.”  
  4. Be personal.  Even if you’re provided a script, don’t just read from it.  Make this a conversation.  People don’t trust stinted press releases, but they will trust you.
  5. Coach individuals that come to you and encourage your leaders to do the same.  You can use coaching techniques to help people find their way through difficult situations.  They are whole, resourceful, creative beings and have the ability to thrive.  As their leader, it’s not your job to solve every problem for them, but it is your job to lead them through the situation.

We retain our authenticity not by telling everyone everything we know, but by being transparent about what we do know and what we can say.

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Susan Hodge

Susan Hodge

Susan Hodge created Women Leading Together in order to provide one-on-one executive coaching, seminars, workshops, and coaching circles to help career women move forward to create fulfilling professional lives. Visit our website for upcoming programs, articles, and resources to advance your career.

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