Disclosing Sensitive Information
There is a wide range of reasons that leaders give to justify delays in sharing information with employees and others. This includes minimizing the risk of leaks to outside parties such as competitors, financial analysts and others who may use the information in a way that is harmful to the organization. The desire to minimize or delay employee anxiety related to decisions that affect them such as plant closures, layoffs, restructuring and so on is another. A further one is a perceived need to have plans fully developed so that people can be provided with details such as what is going to happen by when. In some cases, the delays are based on the hope that things are going to change for the better and the belief that disclosing what is happening would create unnecessary angst that may negatively affect the situation. While the motives may be well grounded, the decision to delay disclosing sensitive information often backfires. At one extreme, there are situations such as Enron and WorldCom that led to new laws and regulations that require organizations to fully and effectively disclose their financials. This leaves the vast majority of other situations that we are concerned with here where leaders have to make a decision as to what and when information is shared. The thing to keep in mind is that most people notice what is going on around them especially if they think it may affect them. When this happens, they speak with others who may very well be noticing the same thing. They start asking questions and speculating quickly expanding the number of people participating in the conversations. The next thing you know, the rumor mill is alive and active and the very thing you were hoping to avoid now exists. Employees are upset, productivity is down and performance is negatively affected.
Tell people when you are sharing sensitive information, ask them to handle it appropriately (be clear what this means) and explain the consequences for not doing so.
When sharing sensitive information be sure to include the reason that it is to be kept confidential such as the implications to the organization if it is leaked to competitors. People are more likely to be discrete if they understand and believe the reasons given for not sharing the information.
The consequences of leaking information need to be clear and explained up front. These can range from exclusion from future discussions of sensitive information to termination depending on the situation. Note: If termination is a consequence, you will need to have Human Resources involved from the beginning to ensure that you are complying with organizational policies and legal requirements.
‘Put the elephant in the room’ – open up conversations about the unspoken issues that everyone is thinking about but are not being openly discussed.
- Organizations that are in dynamic environments and/or experiencing substantial change are breeding grounds for rumors and incorrect assumptions. For example, people may interpret a drop in share price, failure to deliver on market expectations with respect to revenues and profitability, emergence of a new competitor or other events as signs that people are going to lose their jobs. This can damage morale, deflect attention from productive work and negatively affect performance.
Be vigilant in monitoring for this behavior. If you believe that this is happening, address it quickly and effectively (see Managing the Rumor Mill).
- When problems occur such as mistakes, missed deliverables, interpersonal conflicts and disagreements, people can tend to avoid discussing or dealing with them usually in the hope that they will go away.
This approach works once in a while but, in most cases, failure to effectively deal with conflicts and disagreements can cause them to fester negatively affecting relationships, productivity, and performance.
- Focus on the facts – ‘what do we know for sure?’ – and address unfounded rumors and assumptions.
- If there is a genuine reason for people to be concerned, acknowledge their concerns and tell them what you can including when they can expect to receive specific information.
- Never, under any circumstances, mislead or lie to people as this will cause long-term damage to your credibility and effectiveness as a leader.
- If you don’t agree with a decision or don’t understand it, take the steps necessary to be able to explain it appropriately and effectively to others.
Ask questions and, when needed, clearly state your concerns including you don’t understand the reason for the decision.
- Avoid putting others on the defensive. Your motive should be to understand the decision and the rationale behind it so that you can credibly communicate it to others.
Keep in mind that it is not necessary for you to agree with or like the decision if it is not your decision to make.
- In this situation, you do not have the right to publicly criticize the person or the decision. This has no value and can only harm your relationship with the other person, diminish collaboration and potentially damage your and his/her credibility.
- When others ask you questions about the decision, communicate the facts and do not add your personal view or opinion. This includes saying things like, ‘I don’t agree with this but…’
- Your responsibility is to make sure that you, your team, department or organization does what is needed to support the decision and achieve the desired outcome. Focusing discussion on what your team needs to do is much more productive than conversations about what is wrong with the decision and the person who made it.
- Avoid saying ‘I don’t know’, ‘this is just the way it is’, ‘it’s their decision, not mine’ etc. when others ask you questions.
Always, to the extent possible, share sensitive information such as people affecting decisions face-to-face.
- Keep in mind that when sharing people-affecting information, timeliness is essential.
- This can be a challenge for teams that are geographically and/or temporally dispersed e.g. shift workers.
- If direct face-to-face communication isn’t possible in a timely manner, consider deploying delegates in different locations to facilitate local conversations.
- A combination of broadcast video communication accompanied by local, small group breakouts that share the results of their discussions with the large group can be very effective.
It is important to provide opportunities for people to ‘safely’ ask questions and state their concerns.
- This usually does not apply to large group scenarios such as town halls or other meetings hosted by senior leaders.
- These conversations only happen between people who respect and trust each other. In most cases, this exists most often between front-line managers/supervisors and their staff. For this reason, consider using communication strategies that focus on manager-employee dialogue.
- Consider phasing the communications to allow people opportunities to reflect on and discuss what they heard then come back with their questions and concerns at a separate session held in the near future.
Take the time to ensure understanding by offering explanations and raising questions that you believe people may be thinking but not asking.
- Keep an open-door policy and encourage people to come and ask you questions if they are unclear as to the reason for a decision etc.
- Consider posting a schedule that shows when you are available. A general rule of thumb is one hour two to three times a week.
- Other options include holding informal lunch gatherings where people can bring their lunch to a meeting room for a general conversation about questions and concerns they may have.
Hold regular staff meetings.
- One of the most effective ways to ensure an adequate flow of information is to plan and hold regular meetings or conference calls where time is allotted to discuss questions or concerns that people may have.
Critically test the need for secrecy of information.
- A common trap that leaders fall into is to err on the side of secrecy. In other words, because complete secrecy is required in handling certain information (e.g. something that may affect share price) or the leader has been burned in the past (e.g. strategic plans were leaked to a competitor), he/she decides to share nothing or very little about anything until it is 100% safe to do so.
- Another common situation is that secrecy is requested by another person or group such as Human Resources. This typically happens in situations that are perceived to affect employees such as changes to organizational structure, roles and responsibilities, and staffing levels.
Work with the other person or group to clearly define a communication plan that identifies what can be communicated to employees at what time. This includes when you can share the communication plan itself with employees.
- Respect for the agreement. Do not disclose information that others have asked that you keep confidential.
- Clearly explain the process you and/or others are going to use to make a decision on a sensitive topic, such as whether to shut down a work shift or production line.
- Make a conscious decision with respect to the decision-making process that you are going to use e.g. consensus, democratic vote, unilateral decision and so on.
If you are going to provide opportunities for people to provide their ideas and suggestions, let them know when this is going to happen and what the scope of consultation/involvement is going to be.
- For example, are all employees going to have an opportunity to be part of the process? How is this going to happen? When will employees be provided with information telling them about logistics for the sessions?
- Clearly, indicate what you and/or others are going to do with the input provided by employees. This should include what information gathered through employee consultation will be shared and when this will happen.
- Make sure that you close the loop by thanking employees for their input and explaining how the information and suggestions they provided affected the decision. This should also include an explanation of suggestions that were discarded with the rationale for why this happened.
Identify opportunities to continually improve information sharing.
- Treat communication and information sharing as a core business process.
- Use different situations as scenarios to evaluate the effectiveness of information sharing and identify what worked and what can be done to do it better the next time.
- Consider using an approach such as those provided in the section on Learning from the Past.
Train managers on effective communication skills.
- Evaluate individual capability in critical skills such as holding difficult conversations, dealing effectively with sensitive information, and engaging people in dialogue.
- Provide targeted skills development supplemented by post-training support systems such as additional learning resources, peer coaching networks, Human Resources support, direct coaching and so on.
- Periodically, evaluate individual manager effectiveness to identify additional support and development requirements.
Assess the effectiveness of communications within your area of responsibility.
- Conduct a survey, a series of focus groups or other data collection method that provides specific information on the effectiveness of information sharing. This should include criteria such as timeliness, accuracy, accessibility, and completeness of the information that is shared using various communication methods.
- Use the data that is gathered to refine and improve information sharing.
Develop a communication strategy and plan for your area.
- This applies to small teams as well as large departments and organizations. Any time a group of people is working together, it is important to clarify expectations with respect to communications.
- Taking the time to develop a communication plan and strategy provides the opportunity to assess the effectiveness of current information sharing practices and approaches and identify ways these can be improved.
- Guidelines for creating communications strategies and plans are available on the web. Two examples are available at the following sites: