Recently, I overheard two frontline supervisors talking about a meeting they attended a few days earlier. At that meeting, senior leaders of the division shared upcoming plans (layoffs) for cutting expenses. The senior leaders explained that they would announce the plan in a week, once the details were ironed out. The senior leaders closed the meeting with the demand that nothing be said about the upcoming layoffs.

One supervisor said to the other, “What are we going to do? We can’t tell our direct reports what we know.”

Told to Play Dumb

The concerned supervisor – not as tenured as the supervisor he was talking to – said, “When something like this gets announced, my team members are convinced that I knew what was coming. Sometimes I do – but like at this meeting, I’ve been told to ‘play dumb.'”

I cannot pretend to understand all the dynamics at play in every organization on the planet. However, I am quite confident that great leaders do not lie. Nor do they ask their managers to lie. The costs are simply too great.

Lies Create a House of Cards

When a senior leader is discovered to have lied, those lies erode:

  • Trust – followers learn that they cannot trust what those leaders tell them. If some of what they hear turns out to be untrue, they quickly go to the assumption that “little of what we hear is true.” That perception becomes fact to those players.
  • Respect – followers feel disrespected because senior leaders have not trusted them with the potential “bad news.” When key plans, decisions, and actions are withheld from employees, respect dims quickly.
  • Credibility – senior leaders’ plans, decisions, and actions tell followers exactly what the senior leaders’ values are. If those leaders do not “do what they say they will do,” their credibility is lost. Un-credible leaders inspire fear and mailaise, not confidence and accomplishment.

Without trust, respect, and credibility, little discretionary energy will be applied to workplace project, goals, and tasks. These issues can take years to recover from – if a senior leader can recover, at all.

Be Honest & Transparent

One lie begets ten other lies which support the first. It gets complicated to keep track of who was told what! Don’t spend your time juggling lies; spend your time being honest and transparent.

Honesty & transparency means you let your team know what the context is for your plans, decisions, and actions. Educate others about the issues and opportunities before you – and do so regularly, not right before a tough decision gets announced.

Education about the business issues and opportunities you face enables talented staff to put their brains to work – and they may surprise you with a different way to solve problems with less impact on your workforce, your customers, or your stakeholders.

If you can’t be honest & transparent – and there are scenarios where you cannot disclose details of every possibility – what should you do? The conversation between the two supervisors ended when the more experienced supervisor put his hand on the shoulder of the concerned supervisor and said, “I tell them what I can. If I’ve been told that I cannot tell details, I explain that I’ve not been given the authority to  disclose what our senior leaders are considering. My team may not be happy about it, but at least I’m not saying ‘I don’t know’ – which is a lie.”

I couldn’t have said it better. What is your experience with untruths in the workplace? Add your thoughts in the comments section below.

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S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
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