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How leaders maintain trust while delivering difficult news

Whether stocks are down, a key stakeholder is leaving, or your product has suffered a setback, at some point you will have to communicate difficult things to your employees — and if it’s not done with care and thought, it can create a culture of uncertainty, distrust, and fear.

  • Why it matters: It’s a leader’s job to ensure teams have both the context they need to stay informed and the trust in leadership to stay the course when difficulties arise.

The big picture: One of the most difficult things companies face is communicating timely and effectively without overwhelming employees — and without sending them into a tailspin of unproductivity and speculation. 

In a Voray event sponsored by Axios HQ, Corsearch CEO Abel Clark and Muck Rack CEO Greg Galant share a few ways they maintain team positivity and company integrity when tough messages need to be shared:

  • Trust is key. If you lose it, you won’t be an effective leader. And earning employee trust has to start long before you share bad news. Create a culture of openness — one where your future plans are clearly communicated. 
  • Be direct and straightforward. Truth has a way of coming out. Hiding it damages your credibility and can be the downfall of your reputation. Instead, state it plainly and simply upfront. Take a beat if you need to refine the wording, but don’t wait too long. 
  • Contextualize it. Add in bigger picture details or reiterate key goals and plans for the future. That way, you can put the loss into perspective and remind them you have solid plans to move forward.
  • Words matter. Double check the words you use. Are they overly positive or overly negative? Find a stable middle ground that doesn’t give false impressions either way. Be aware of phrases like “fight on/fight this together” that convey even more hard times to come if that’s not the update you intended.  
  • Tone. Tone. Tone. Along with word choice, the tone of your message will impact employee trust in the business — and you — moving forward. If you can, sound approachable, confident, and human. Treat employees like the adults they are, but remember kindness goes a long way. 
  • Rally employees. Steer the message back to the company mission and your org’s unique strengths — it’ll show you’re still invested in the direction of the company and inspire hope in your readers. It may also get them excited to reinvest their efforts moving forward. 

The takeaway: Good leaders aren’t just needed when the company has a good quarter. They’re needed when you’re facing challenges. But if you step up quickly and communicate your plan to move forward clearly, you can get employees solidly back on board and ready to move ahead together. 

Go deeper: Discover how the communication tool of modern leaders can work for you with Axios Co-founders Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz


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