Give Me the Bad News First

I read an excellent article last week on fastcompany.com on the topic of communication amid uncertainty. It was fascinating! On the topic of uncertainty and the human brain, the authors noted the following:

Given a choice, we’d rather experience an electric shock right now than not know whether we’ll get shocked later. That’s right: Pain is preferable to uncertainty. Our brains seek what scientists have called “cognitive closure,” which motivates us to resolve ambiguous issues in our minds.

Can you believe that pain is preferable to uncertainty? Yet, when you stop and reflect on it, it’s true. Once we know the “bad news,” we can start figuring out how to handle it. It’s the not knowing that’s the killer. Humans need clarity and closure. 

This underscores just how important it is that we communicate with our employees, especially in uncertain times. I’ve walked alongside many leaders who’ve gone through challenging times and faced difficult decisions. The organizations and teams that weathered these challenges the best had leaders who were willing to communicate honestly and openly, even in the face of uncertainty. Here are three best practices:

 Share what you can as soon as you can.  Don’t hoard information, and don’t wait for the stress to reach a fever pitch before taking action and sharing information. The longer uncertainties linger, the higher the apprehension and the quicker rumors spread.

 Be honest. If you don’t know the answer, say so. If you know the answer but can’t share that information just yet, say so. Yes, the haters will hate, as they say (regardless of your honesty), but if you make honesty and proactive communication a regular practice, the employees who are vested and truly care will value it.

 Keep the door open, and keep communicating. One carefully-worded speech or email will provide short-term clarity, but communication isn’t something you just check off the list and mark done. It should be on-going and it should be two-way before, during, and after the challenge.


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