Field Notes

When Uncertainty Becomes the Excuse for Silence

“There are a variety of scenarios at play right now. It’s unclear which direction we’ll take,” he said to his team. “I expect we’ll [have to reduce staff, ask people to stop working with their current partners, close an office, (insert other critical consequence here)]. Until we know more, I expect everyone will treat this situation with extreme confidence. Nothing should be shared beyond this group.”

In these instances, it’s easy to see how sensitive subject matter becomes an excuse for leadership inaction. It goes like this …

  • Important change is afoot — it may or may not affect headcount, but it almost always impacts how people work or with whom they work. It might be an introduction to a new technology, shifts in ways of working, a team restructure, or an announcement of a different strategy.
  • The plans and schedule for the change are in process and details are yet to be determined.
  • Leaders stay silent because they do not have all of the answers and continue with business as usual.
  • Two possible results emerge from this situation:
    • The news leaks and the rumor mill flourishes. Staff author their own story (and “facts”) about what will happen, when, how, etc.
    • Staff are blindsided by the news when it is formally communicated.
  • Leaders experience consequences based on their decision to be silent.
    • If leaked, misinformation and myths run rampant without a reliable source of truth. Communication after the fact is purely “catch up.”
    • Resistance takes hold.
    • Leadership takes a credibility hit as staff perceive deception and a lack of transparency.

Bottom line: Since leaders do not have a crystal ball and cannot speak precisely about what’s ahead, the uncertainty becomes a scapegoat. They remain silent.

It’s important to note that, in these situations, leaders are trying to do the right thing. They seek to own their decisions and be transparent, but believe their hands are tied as plans are in flux. They want to avoid confusion if (and, let’s be real, when) initial plans deviate down the line.

The best leaders find strategic ways to circumvent this pitfall. They resist the urge to use the unknown as justification for silence. They know that trust takes time to build and only small missteps to degrade.

They use these situations to share what they can, when they can, and they pay close attention to the expectations they set, even broadly, about the state of the business or the future. While they may not know everything about an upcoming decision or change, their employees are not shocked when tough news comes their way.

These leaders understand how to engage staff without all the answers, how to own the unknown, and how to bring employees along with them. They recognize that during uncertain times is when showing up in word and action matters most.

– KF