Leadership Transparency: When the Unexpected Happens

Hiding Under Desk

It is human nature to create our own reason to a problem when something unexpected happens and when we don’t know the true answer.  It is a survival instinct to explain the unexplained and to provide purpose to the unknown.

And when leaders don’t realize this human tendency, it can really damage morale and productivity in the workplace.

Understanding Leadership Roles

A few months ago I had a conversation on leadership capabilities with a General Manager that I have known for most of his career.  We discussed the different challenges for leaders depending on what type of organization they head.  I wanted to get his perspective on the differences he observed in leading his current organization versus leading the mainstream business.

When I mentioned a colleague’s recent move to lead a “turnaround” organization because the previous leader failed, he questioned my premise.

He defended the other leader and the organization.

  • He was adamant that the previous manager was a great leader
  • He insisted that the change was not a result of  any mistakes
  • He also argued that the organization was not in trouble

Getting to the Truth

But my colleague was uninformed and incorrect. He was just plain wrong. And I thought that he needed to know the truth. So having insight into the organization in question and having a long time relationship with this GM, I spent some time with my colleague and gave him the truth.

I was up front and told him that many people simply didn’t know the truth about the situation. And without enough communication on the subject matter, the reason for the leadership changes would probably not be clear to those who worked for the replaced leader. My friend who worked there simply believed something different than what actually took place because he didn’t have the facts.

So in communication the truth, my honesty provided a new perspective to this leader and he thanked me for giving him a new lens on being transparent.

When something unexpected happens and leaders don’t communicate enough, followers will make up their own story which may not paint the right picture.  The leader may think they have provided what’s needed but a high level statement will not be sufficient if it does not contain enough “why.

A Little Closer to Home

I serve on the Board of Directors of my Home Owners Association.  I could write a new reality show on the drama that exists in a community that appears from the outside to be a beautiful paradise.

I have learned that this is not uncommon in large communities.  Who knew?

Due to different circumstances during my tenure, we have had a lot of turnover on the Board and with the Association Manager.  In most circumstances, the board was not able to disclose the reason for the departures without legal risk.

I recently got to know one of my neighbors with a great network within the community.  She told me the various rumors that were circulating on the different departures.  I could not believe my ears.  The stories were so far from the truth, it floored me.

I asked her “how do people make this stuff up?”

When information is lacking, people will create their own version of what they believe to be the truth.  The more distrust in the leader, the more harmful the story.

Impacting Morale and Results

I recently had lunch with a colleague who works for a small company in the Midwest.  She shared an unfortunate example of lack of transparency and the impact.

The CEO of her company unexpectedly announced her departure.

The CEO’s statement followed by a scarce press release from PR created a whirlwind of water cooler talk filled with employees speculating if they should bail ship.  Stories being conjured up included lack of faith in the company, indiscretions, political aspirations, health issues and so on.

It has negatively impacted morale and productivity in a time where the company can’t afford to pause.

My colleague’s concern was that the true reason may never be known which could unintentionally shake the foundation of bench leaders or cause the company to go under.

A Better Way To Lead: Use Wisdom and Truth

Here are a few questions that can point to a better way to handle things:

  • Leaders need to consider when something unexpected happens, how much can and needs to be disclosed?
  • What do employees need in order to have trust?
  • How can a leader turn concern into contentment and acceptance?
  • If legal risks or confidentiality prevent details from being disclosed, what CAN be communicated?

Shortly after one of our Association Managers left unexpectedly and an angry crowd showed up at the board meeting demanding to bring her back, we disclosed that due to risk of litigation, we couldn’t provide details.

Amazingly the noise stopped!

We didn’t have to disclose the details, we just had to provide the “why”.

Have you experienced a leader being transparent in a rough situation that resulted in unexpected success?  What examples do you have of leaders not being transparent and the consequences?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Cheryl Dilley
Cheryl Dilley 
is a Program Director at Intel Corporation
She is a transformation leader, coach, and program strategist
Email | LinkedIn WebFacebook

Image Sources: workwithjeanniealaimo.com

4 responses to “Leadership Transparency: When the Unexpected Happens

  1. Why would a leader ever choose to not provide the appropriate level of transparency? It’s baffling to think that they believe that things have to be kept secret when hiding them will be damaging to the corporate identity.


  2. Reblogged this on enchanting leadership and commented:
    If you move into a new role, or one that has recently been vacated, you need to scout out the territory first and find out how bad the damage of the change has been on the staff. It doesn’t do any good to keep them in the dark. Tell the truth about the situation and talk about how positive changes can be made – clear the air – and let your team get on with making their work a success.


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